Puerto Rico federal court issues opinion explaining its prior order on proselytizers’ access to gated communities

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

May 9, 2013.  In a long-running free-exercise/ free-speech case, in March a the federal district court in Puerto Rico, on remand from the 1st Circuit, ordered neighborhood homeowners’ associations (urbanizations) that allow entry into the neighborhood only through an unmanned locked gate operated by a key, access code or beeper to provide Jehovah’s Witnesses who wish to proselytize in the neighborhood access equal to that of residents. (See prior posting.) Apparently the negative response to the ruling impelled the court to issue an opinion further explaining its order. Watchtower Bible Tract Society of New York, Inc. v. Municipality of Santa Isabel, (D PR, May 6, 2013), is an opinion captioned: “Order Summarizing the Law and Court Orders Regarding the Right of Jehovah’s Witnesses To Access Public Streets In Gated Communities In Puerto Rico.” In it, the court said in part:

The Court is aware this case has sparked extreme public debate…  The Court is not deaf to the concerns of the general public that resides in gated communities. To be sure, as much as this case is about civil liberties, it is also about the frightening amount of crime currently suffocating the island. The general public, as evidenced by the hordes of motions recently filed by the Municipal Defendants, appears not to grasp the notion that this Court is only enforcing an order of a higher court. In doing so, this Court must strike a balance between a legitimate form of protection against crime and protecting the civil liberties of the citizenry in Puerto Rico….

The Court has not granted unfettered access to violent criminals, nor should any knowledgeable or reputable person spread such fear. The gates were erected as a means to reduce crime on the island. Since the enactment of the Control Access Law, crime has not substantially abated on the island. The Court is not aware of a single instance in which any Jehovah’s Witness has been charged or convicted of a crime while expressing his or her religious beliefs. The Jehovah’s Witnesses enjoy the same First Amendment rights as all residents of Puerto Rico. If access to public streets can be denied to them, then access can be denied to anyone. For example, an aspiring politician will be barred from going door-to-door seeking endorsements. Likewise, the press could also be prevented from entering a gated community to cover the reactions of residents to a court ruling, as that in this case. More so, during Easter, Catholics could similarly be barred from participating in a Via Crucis on public streets….

A copy of this order shall be provided by each Municipality to the administrator of every gated community.