The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a friend-of-the-court brief recently, stating that laws in Puerto Rico banning Jehovah's Witnesses from expressing their faith on the streets in the American territory are unconstitutional.
These Puerto Rican laws were enacted in 1987 to authorize neighborhoods to deny citizens access to public residential streets by erecting walls and gates around them. These laws effectively prohibit Jehovah's Witnesses from participating in the door-to-door public ministry for which they are well known, says an ACLU press release.
The brief, filed by the ACLU in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, supports a constitutional challenge to Puerto Rico laws enacted by the approximately 25,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in 318 congregations in Puerto Rico, as well as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., the publisher of religious material commonly associated with and distributed by Jehovah's Witnesses.
Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a statement, "Jehovah's Witnesses unquestionably have a constitutionally protected right to proclaim their faith on the public streets of Puerto Rico. These laws impose sweeping restrictions on free speech and religious exercise and strike at the heart of the First Amendment."
The brief argues that the "closing of public streets to outside speakers is an unprecedented intrusion on some of the most basic, fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment," and adds that the laws not only stifle religious freedoms but also door-to-door charitable solicitations and political canvassing.
William Ramirez, Executive Director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico, said in the statement, "The public street has long been the archetype of a traditional public forum," and "these laws dangerously limit access to places that for ages have served as forums for unfettered public discussion and communication."
The ACLU strives to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.