BOSTON (CN) – Communities in Puerto Rico must revise local crime-prevention plans meant to keep out violent elements because they improperly bar Jehovah’s Witnesses, the 1st Circuit ruled.
In recent years, many Puerto Rico urbanizations have responded to a serious crime problem by getting permits under a law that allows them to fence in their communities, manned by security guards or locked gates. Drugs, violent crime and police corruption have ravaged the U.S. territory, according the ruling, which notes that the median household income in Puerto Rico is one-third of the national average and half of every other state, while the homicide rate is quadruple the national average and more than double “virtually every state.”
Two corporations that operate the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York and Congregacion de Cristiana de los Testigos de Joheva de Puerto Rico, challenged the controlled-access law in District Court. They claimed that the law has unconstitutionally kept them from their religious duty of spreading the Bible’s message door to door, and subjected them to scrutinizing questions they should not have to answer.
In 2004, they sued the governor of Puerto Rico and three other commonwealth-level officials, alleging unreasonable seizure and violations of their rights to the free speech, press, association, religion and travel.
By 2008, eight urbanizations had agreed to grant the Jehovah’s Witnesses access to their communities, and the court entered a default judgment against three municipalities and 12 urbanizations, ordering them to grant the Jehovah’s Witnesses unfettered access.
A year later, the court upheld the laws as constitutional and ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to pay the attorneys’ fees for the defendants. The court said it was acceptable for urbanizations with security guards to deny access to Jehovah’s Witnesses without permission from a member of the community, and that locked gates were acceptable because Jehovah’s Witnesses could acquire entry with permission from a resident.
On appeal, the Jehovah’s Witnesses conceded that crime control is a serious governmental interest for Puerto Rico, but that this law creates a blanket restriction on unapproved entry that muffles free speech. They also pointed out that the crime rate has actually increased since adoption of the law.
The Boston-based federal appeals panel vacated part of that decision on Monday.
“Puerto Rico’s crime problems are unusually serious and its legislature’s solution, albeit an experiment, was democratically adopted and is far from irrational,” Judge Michael Boudin wrote for a three-judge panel. “A court’s task is to assure breathing room for legitimate communicative activity. Although we reject the facial challenge to the statute, the precedents on access to public places require fine tuning of the statute’s local administration and, for that, further proceedings are required.”
The court found that the buzzer system of entry among urbanizations that do not use security guards is not making the cut. Absent special justification, all gated urbanizations must begin to use manned gates, at least during daylight hours or on predesignated days. The security guards cannot bar Jehovah’s Witnesses without just cause.
Adopting these adjustments may take some time, but Boudin warned that unnecessary delays may result in contempt orders or a judgment of attorneys’ fees against the government defendants.
Security guards may only ask limited questions of Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the ruling.
“Compared to an airport search, a few questions about identity and purpose for entering an urbanization seem tame indeed,” Boudin wrote.