Seventh-day Adventist Church Sues Alabaster, Alabama

According to a Religious News Service report available on the Huffington Post, “Seventh-day Adventists have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of two ordinances in an Alabama city that the church says bars it and other religious groups from door-to-door solicitations unless they first register and pay license fees.

“The lawsuit was filed after a member of the church's Summer Student Missionary Program was ticketed in June by a police officer for selling books door-to-door without a City of Alabaster permit," the lawsuit states. After the citation, the group suspended its program in Alabaster, which is about 20 miles south of Birmingham.

"The City of Alabaster has enacted two sweeping ordinances that unconstitutionally restrict the exchange of beliefs and religious principles within the Alabaster city limits," the lawsuit states. The ordinances were enacted in 1994.

“The lawsuit seeks a court order that declares the ordinances unconstitutional and bars the city from enforcing them.” (See also this report.)

When I read and watched the foregoing news reports, my mind went back 42 years to early June 1970. I’d just graduated from Sunnydale Academy, near Centralia, Missouri, having committed to work for the summer as a student colporteur in the town of Kirksville, Missouri.

As fate would have it, one of the funeral directors in Centralia--who was also a land developer and home-building speculator--had a few years before come to our town from Kirksville. Off and on during my high-school years, I’d worked for him doing various construction-related jobs. Since he was a good friend of the mayor of Kirksville, he wrote a nice letter on my behalf--totally of his own volition--introducing me, vouching for my character and work ethic and urging that I receive a friendly welcome from city hall.

Early in the afternoon of my arrival in Kirksville, I met the conference publishing associate who was to teach me the tricks of the trade. I told him about my letter, suggesting that we go right to the mayor’s office so I could get started on a solid footing. I was planning to show the mayor the 10-volume set of The Bible Storiesand the other books I was selling. And I hoped I could get him to write a letter of endorsement for me.

Because the publishing associate had only the balance of that day and part of the next to be with me, he dissuaded me from going to see the mayor. Instead, we got right into selling. But our venture was short-lived.

We quickly discovered that Kirksville had a strongly enforced version of the Green River Ordinance. As we left the second house, a police officer was in the yard, asking to see our city-issued vendor’s license. The publishing associate assured him that we were involved in Christian outreach, working for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and that we didn’t need to have a license to share the gospel. The officer, though cordial, was unmoved by the argument. He made it quite clear that if we knocked on another door we’d be arrested.

Certain that the officer meant what he’d said, we drove into the country, where the city ordinance didn’t apply. In fact, for several weeks, I had to work in the country as the church fathers sought to convince the city fathers that I should be allowed to sell religious books without a license or without registering with the authorities. I thought their argument was wrong-headed back when I was an 18-year-old onlooker. And I think their argument is wrong-headed now that I’m a 60-year-old onlooker.  

Let’s briefly note the following:

Romans 13: 1, 4 says: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, ...For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” Also Matthew 22:21: ““Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s...”

Municipal leaders know there are a lot of charlatans on the loose. So they want to protect the citizenry, who have voted them into office, in part, to play just such a role. Thus, would-be businesspeople of all types must provide certain information to the municipal authorities and purchase a license. Similar registration and authentication is usually required for organizations wishing to solicit funds.

While the occasional con artist or violent criminal may still slip through, registration and licensure are at least prudent precautions in trying to safeguard the citizens from fraud and violence. Would you and I want our elected officials just to let anyone and everyone conduct business in our town exactly as they please, with no regulation and no oversight whatsoever?

If we appreciate the official registration and licensing process when it comes to others, why do we expect an exception to be made for those who earn their living (or their school fees) by selling a religious product or soliciting funds for a religious cause? We can say all we want about the Adventist outreach aspect of literature evangelism, but there’s also a very real money-earning component. In fact, part of my sales pitch was that I was seeking to earn money to go to college to study to be a minister. I wasn’t there just to witness, though both money and witnessing were my goal.

I find it unfathomable that we as Adventists believe that earning a living by selling and/or soliciting from a religious perspective is on a radically different plane from, say, the door-to-door fruit seller. Why do we think it’s totally appropriate that he has to be licensed, yet we would fight all the way to the Supreme Court to protect our “religious right” to be unlicensed, unregulated and not overseen in any way by local government? To my way of thinking, our stance on “Green River Ordinances” is an abuse of religious freedom, not a true exercise of it. (Of course, it’s not the first time we’ve misunderstood the role and scope of religious freedom. We’ve also argued that we should be allowed to pay women less money than men because that was part of the free exercise of religion.)

Are we willing to argue also that our church buildings shouldn’t be subject to inspection by the fire marshall--because were the fire department to shut down an unsafe building, it would impinge on our ability to witness? Besides, some fire marshall somewhere might shut us down because of religious prejudice--so shouldn’t we just refuse to acknowledge his authority to ensure safe buildings across the board. “No way!” we say.  So why is one law that’s designed to protect public safety considered a legitimate imposition on the free exercise of religion while another beneficial law isn’t?

The point is: If municipal authorities won’t grant licenses or occupancy permits to a religious entity when it applies, and if it’s quite clear their refusal is prejudicially motivated, then we have a true religious-liberty issue on our hands and should go after it vigorously. But what I faced in Kirksville and what’s being litigated in Alabaster doesn’t fall into that category. We’re trying to say that, in the case of vendors licenses, the very fact that such a license is required o f religious groups is a religious-liberty infringement. Not so.

While I think the church is completely in the wrong on this case, I’m confident “we’ll” win the lawsuit, hands down. The courts routinely bend over backward for religion. But we must remember that it’s possible to win a battle and lose the war. I can assure you that many people in Alabaster, Alabama, aren’t going to look fondly on this lawsuit. We can couch this showdown in all the lofty terminology and high religious principles we want. But the bottom line for many a local resident will be that Big Business (and the church isbig business) is bullying a little town because the church thinks it’s above the law--and a reasonable law, at that. 

One comment on the Shelby County Reporter’s website represents what quite a few people feel, I’d suggest: “Not a very christian way for the church to behave in my opinion! Number one it is dangerous in this day and age for young people to be going door to door and number two it is very annoying to have someone ring your bell selling something. They have a website and more and more people use the internet for communication why not let the young people minister there???  Not everyone believes the same and for a church to annoy people by sending young people door to door is NOT helping to bring people to Christ…quite the contrary. They should be creative and keep the young people at home or in the church and bring people to them. STAY OFF THE STREETS AND STOP SELLING AND ANNOYING PEOPLE!! Just sayin…” And that’s from someone who appears to be generally favorable toward religion.

I don’t know why the church is making Alabaster, Alabama, a test case--as opposed to, let’s say, Atlanta. But right or wrong, a lot of onlookers are going to assume that it has something to do with the depth of the pockets. It will be viewed as bullying. When it’s deep pockets versus shallow pockets, who’s more likely to win? A win in Alabaster is a lot more likely than a win would be in Atlanta.

In these difficult economic times, when government at all levels are having difficulty making ends meet, I somehow don’t think the added cost of litigation is going to sit well with the citizens of Alabaster. Especially should they discover that the city’s services aren’t what they used to be because a substantial chunk of their small budget has gone to fight a lawsuit over a truly reasonable law that discriminates against no one. 

Of course, not all citizens of Alabaster will agree. A few will think, like the Adventist Church does, that this is an infraction of religious liberty and should be litigated. And tensions will arise in the town over whether the city should stand its ground and fight or just give in to the better-financed and more-determined plaintiff. It will have a negative effect on Alabaster’s tranquility and solidarity.

Granted that “No Religion” is the fastest-growing religious category in this country, and granted that even many deeply committed religious people are getting fed up with the way religious entities and religious leaders deport themselves these days, I can’t think of a more inopportune time to fight such a publicly unpopular battle. Especially when a man is sitting in jail in California right now because he refuses to quit using certain words that Adventists say are legally theirs and only theirs.

But back to my summer in Kirksville.

Eventually the church’s leaders got the matter ironed out, and I was back in town selling books. I never took my letter of reference to the mayor. After all that had gone on, it just didn’t seem appropriate. It was no longer credible. Nor was it needed. I guess the church fathers had convinced the city fathers that religion was charlatan-free, and purveyors of the gospel didn’t need to be licensed or regulated or overseen in any way. As religious people, we obviously would behave honorably and take advantage of no one.

Anyway, I knocked on a door one day and showed The Bible Storiesto the man who invited me in. “I’ve seen those books,” he said. “My wife bought them from a door-to-door salesman who came through a year or so ago.” (I knew there had been a full-time literature evangelist in the town not all that many months before, but I didn’t know what had become of him.)

The man continued: “Yeah, that man was a salesman, all right. A realsalesman.” As he spoke, his voice got more brassy and intense, and he fixed his gaze on me unblinkingly. “In fact,” he said, punctuating each word, “that man was such a good salesman that he’s going to marry my wife next week!”

His statement caught me totally off guard. Before I could recover he looked right at me with a penetrating gaze and said in an intimidatingly steely voice, “I suppose you’re a Seventh-day Adventist too.” Needless to say, I didn’t continue trying to sell him another set of The Bible Stories! I got out of there as quickly as I could. But I’ve never forgotten the incident or the tone of his voice.

My fear is that around Alabaster, Alabama, the name Seventh-day Adventist will soon be spoken in the same steely, brassy tones that I heard that day in Kirksville, Missouri. And I’ll fully understand why they’re responding as they are, just like I fully understood it back then.

Breaking News.According the the Shelby County Reporter: “Alabaster will temporarily allow a group participating in the Seventh-day Adventists’ Summer Student Missionary Program to go door-to-door in the city ‘without interference from the city,’ City Attorney Jeff Brumlow said after a July 18 hearing.”

The report goes on to say: “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.

 

James Coffin, recently retired after nearly 36 years as a youth pastor, pastor and editor, is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.



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