by AT News Team
The South Central Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church filed a lawsuit in Federal court last week against the town of Alabaster, a suburb of Birmingham. The litigation was initiated because local police stopped students involved in a summer literature evangelism program on June 27 and charged them with “selling books door-to-door without a city permit,” according to the Shelby County Reporter.
Two municipal ordinances “unconstitutionally restrict the exchange of beliefs and religious principles,” the legal filing argues. One ordinance bans door-to-door soliciting and another “imposes significant restrictions” by requiring individuals soliciting in a public place to first get a permit from the town government.
The conference has suspended the program in which college students travel in teams to various communities and knock on doors to distribute “free literature” about the Adventist faith and solicit donations to support the program, according to court documents.
Jeff Brumlow, the town’s attorney, told the local newspaper, “If you look at the citation, his employer is listed as Family Health Education Service. They have a website, and if you go on there you can click on books, add them to your cart and pay for them. … If they were strictly out there spreading the gospel, we wouldn’t be here (with this lawsuit) today,” Brumlow said. He stated that the town has “consistently enforced these ordinances” on all door-to-door salespeople.
"Both Alabama state law governing door-to-door charitable solicitation and the ordinances of the city governing the same, have been and will continue to be applied neutrally to all individuals and groups who solicit sales and charitable contributions door-to-door within the city,” Brumlow told television station WBRC. “The city does not and will not tolerate any form of discrimination against any group or individual on any basis,” the statement continues, clearly concerned about the implications of the fact that the student group is largely African American and the suburb is 80 percent white.
"The City of Alabaster has enacted an absolute ban on door-to-door sales, and has restricted all other forms of solicitation and expression unless those wishing to engage in such religious, charitable or other such protected discourse first register with the City, not just once, but twice; pay the required license fees, disclose their personal identity and a variety of personal information, and provide numerous burdensome and irrelevant details regarding their past and future speech,” reported WBRC about the Adventist suit.
The conference asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order that would prevent the town from enforcing the ordinances. Judge Karon Bowdre set a hearing for the morning July 18 at the Hugo L. Black U.S. Courthouse in downtown Birmingham and by afternoon the Shelby County Reporter stated that Brumlow had decided to allow the students to go door-to-door “without interference.”
The local newspaper reported that during the hearing, the town government agreed to allow the students to conduct their program in Alabaster and the Adventists Church agreed to wait on a final ruling from the Federal judge which will likely come in March 2013. “We didn’t want to penalize these college kids who are conducting their scholarship work while we sort everything out with the church,” Brumlow said.
Clearly the town government fears that the court may strike down the ordinances, one attorney told Adventist Today. She pointed to the Supreme Court cases that have in recently broadened freedom of speech relative to political fund raising and promotion. “They probably think it is better to bend some in the short term and hope that the litigation goes away before it is finalized.”
This type of incident highlights the extent to which public attitudes have turned against some traditional outreach methods that the Adventist denomination uses, one pastor told Adventist Today. “The majority of Americans, particularly in suburban communities, no longer feel that it is acceptable for strangers to knock on their door and sell religious literature or attempt to talk to them about religion. I am all in favor of protecting religious rights, but one has to ask if this is the best way to proclaim the gospel right now.”
The South Central Conference is made up of about 150 congregations with a total of nearly 30,000 members in Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee and part of Florida. Most are historically African American congregations, although there are a number representing other ethnic groups. The conference is noted for its mobile health units that bring screening clinics to rural towns and inner city neighborhoods, as well as sponsoring low-income and elderly housing projects.