In response to an ACLU of Washington lawsuit, the Puyallup City Council last night amended its solicitation ordinance to protect the rights of a religious organization to spread its message. The ACLU had filed suit on behalf of United States Mission challenging city restrictions that prevented the organization from carrying out its mission of preaching the "Social Gospel." The amended ordinance includes exemptions for religious, political, and other nonprofit organizations which engage in door-to-door solicitation.
"We appreciate that Puyallup worked with us to craft a new ordinance that recognizes the religious freedom rights," said ACLU-WA staff attorney Harry Williams. "Now members of United States Mission can carry out their mission."
United States Mission is a Christian-based nonprofit organization that operates transitional housing for homeless persons. Residents engage in door-to-door solicitation on the mission's behalf to evangelize and practice the Social Gospel and thereby advance their personal and spiritual growth. Door-to-door solicitation also is the mission's primary means of support for its social programs.
Due to restrictions that Puyallup had imposed, United States Mission had been unable to engage in door-to-door solicitation in the city. Puyallup's ordinance requires religious organizations to obtain a license from the city before its members may engage in religious solicitation.
The lawsuit asserted that the old ordinance violated the Mission's rights under the U.S. and Washington state constitutions. The ACLU pointed out that forcing the Mission's members to obtain a city-issued license is an impermissible prior restraint on a religious organization's free speech rights. Individuals who so choose can limit solicitation at their homes by posting 'No Soliciting' signs on their property.
Puyallup's ordinance also unconstitutionally restricted speech on the basis of its content: It regulates solicitation by religious organizations while exempting from the licensing requirements an array of other groups, including farmers, gardeners, lawn-care service providers, and some political advocates. Further, it accords city officials nearly unfettered discretion to decide whether and when to deny licenses, giving officials free rein to discriminate against speech and causes with which they disagree.
Numerous court rulings have upheld the right of citizens to engage in religious and charitable solicitation without unreasonable restrictions. The ACLU represented the Mission in 2000 in successfully challenging a similar overly restrictive solicitation law enacted by the City of Medina in King County. In that case, the city repealed licensing and background check provisions after the U.S. District Court in Seattle issued a permanent injunction barring enforcement of the law.
Handling the case were ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys Kevin Hamilton, William Stafford, and Lisa Marshall Manheim of Perkins Coie LLP, along with staff attorney Harry Williams.