Factual issues remain in Seventh-day Adventists’ challenge to solicitation ordinance

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In South-Central Conference of Seventh Day Adventists v. City of Alabaster, (ND AL, March 19, 2013), Seventh Day Adventists sued to enjoin the city of Alabaster, Alabama from enforcing its Solicitation Permit Ordinance against the church’s Literature Evangelists who canvass door-to-door in the summer. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The court held that whether enforcement of the ordinance against plaintiffs violates the 1st Amendment depends on whether they are engaged in commercial or non-commercial speech. It continued:

If … the Literature Evangelists were evangelizing and selling books, then … the Plaintiffs’ speech would be religious in nature, and the Ordinances would be invalid as restricting First Amendment protected speech…. [However if] the Literature Evangelists were exclusively selling books and not evangelizing in any way, … Plaintiffs’ speech would be commercial in nature, and the City could presumably regulate it….

All one must do is read the Literature Evangelists’ and City citizens’ divergent explanations … to realize that the two distinct narratives that emerge cannot be reconciled. Because the court cannot resolve these differing accounts … without making some credibility and factual determinations, the court must deny summary judgment for both parties.