Seventh-day Adventists sue over permit rule

Church seeks exception for religious groups

By Claudia Lauer
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas-Louisiana Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and two church members filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against an Arkansas city that says the group must obtain a permit to go door-to-door evangelizing and seeking donations.

The city of White Hall, about 40 miles south of Little Rock, passed a 2014 ordinance requiring most solicitors to obtain a permit before knocking on the doors of private residents. The city created exceptions for political canvassers, but the lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Pine Bluff says White Hall did not create an exception for religious groups.

“The requirement that a person pass a discretionary and standardless review process as a pre-condition for exercising the protected right to engage in religious speech violates the First Amendment,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit claims the ordinance violates the group’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion. It says a major tenant of the church is spreading the gospel of Jesus.

Students and staff of the Literature Evangelism Program at the Adventist-affiliated Ouachita Hills College were told by White Hall officials that they would need a permit for a planned outreach to residents last month. The group then rescheduled its outreach effort for the college’s spring break in April and asked city officials to reconsider their stance.

Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the conference, said the city’s attorney, Tom Owens, hasn’t responded to the group’s emails and phone calls. Owens didn’t respond to a message The Associated Press left at his law office seeking comment on the group’s lawsuit Tuesday.

“We’ve had several communities push back on us in regards to this issue, but usually we’ve been able to work this out,” McFarland said. “And we tried to do that in White Hall. But what do you do when the attorney won’t return your phone calls?”

After the Seventh-day Adventists filed a lawsuit over a similar ordinance in Alabaster, Alabama, the two sides reached a settlement and the city its solicitation laws.

The lawsuit over the Arkansas ordinance alleges it places an overly broad restriction on speech, levees an unfair tax on that speech with the permit application fee and vests too much power in city officials to decide when permits will be granted or denied based on unclear terms of something being a nuisance.

The conference also alleges that the restriction violates Arkansas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed last year.