Monday, April 13, 2009

Getting Busted for the Cause: Missionaries Arrested for Proselyting Is It Legal or Illegal

When I was a missionary my mission president M. Russell Ballard told us about his experiences in the British Isles that on a couple of occasions he was arrested for holding a street meeting. A street meeting was where they stood up on a make-shift podium and preached a sermon. He said his mission president had to come get them whenever they were arrested in the missionary cause. He suggested to us that we might want to go to the local hardware store and purchase a steep stool and try street preaching in the Canada Toronto Mission back in the mid1970s. He said he or his assistants could always come and bail us out.

My companion and I had an area that was very conducive to such preaching since there were about thirty high rises all one after another in the Toronto area we had. Our area had close to three hundred thousand people. We set up our stool on a corner with eight twelve story high rises within close proximity. My companion stepped up on a stool while I worked the crowd. Within a few minutes several people gathered to see what we were up to.

When my companion finished preaching. He stepped down and a man and a woman approached. The man gave off some weird vibes to me so I was very cautious since he was so assertive. He demanded my companion sell him a Book of Mormon. My companion told him he would be glad to do that. I was a bit leery and insisted he just give it to him. My companion started to argue with me but despite being a junior companion I stopped him and said just give it to him. Despite being frustrated he gave it to him. The man then identified himself as a police officer and said had he sold it to him he would have arrested him for soliciting without a license. He told my companion "lucky for you you listened to your friend or I would have booked you."

Most of us don't realize that in some places in the world missionaries are still being arrested for proselyting. This Saturday a couple of missionaries dropped by my house who were tracting in my subdivision in Summerville, South Carolina. I didn't get a chance to talk with them but they stayed about thirty minutes talking to my kids. The next day at church I saw them and asked them what was going on. One of the elders told me that the president of our homeowner's association was yelling at them if they didn't stop proselyting he was going to call the cops. He told them it was illegal to solicit in his subdivision and if they did it they would be arrested. They had come to our house to get away from him and let him cool down.

I said what is the big deal anyway even if they were arrested they would go to jail for the cause and their mission president could always bail them out. He laughed and said I know about going to jail I have been arrested three times on my mission and my companion has been arrested once. He told me he was specifically assigned to areas with homeowner associations since he has so much experience with them.

He told me that in South Carolina the Church had legally challenged the homeowner associations in court and had won. A couple of home owner associations in Columbia had been dissolved as a consequence of these trials. Also he said a state legislator had been trying to get a state law passed so that the Latter-day Saints couldn't go door to door but it hasn't passed so far.

The elder told me that all three times he was arrested he was never booked. He was arrested and cuffed and driven in the car toward the jail but whenever the arresting officer checked with dispatch or their senior officer he was told to release them. His companion said that happened to him the one time he was arrested also and that being arrested was common in their mission.

I did a thorough search of South Carolina State legislative law and could find nothing about religious solicitation nor door to door solicitation. I did find the following general statement:

When Officers receive complaints of door to door solicitation in neighborhoods that are posted "No Soliciting", The first thing an officer should do is ascertain as to whether or not the roads of that neighborhood are open by right or by custom to the public. If they are then the door to door solicitation prohibition in the neighborhood is invalid (Per the United States Supreme Court. Example: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York vs Village of Stratton); the court found that door to door speech is among the highest orders of protected speech under the 1st Amendment and any broad sweeping restrictions would be invalidated.
I couldn't substantiate the missionaries' claims one way or the other. I don't know why they would make up this information but there was absolutely nothing about any legal action in South Carolina that I could find on the Internet. Does anyone else know anything about missionaries being arrested for tracting in South Carolina or any other state or country?


S.Faux said...

Dr. B:

I would MUCH prefer that missionaries obey Article of Faith #12 than pursue activities that would place them at risk for getting arrested. In fact, if one of my sons were serving in a mission that promoted such activities, then I would probably be writing a number of nasty letters to the mission president and probably beyond.

True, I am feeling quite grumpy today, but I think I would come to the same conclusion on an ordinary day as well.

Jamal said...

Friends who served in Greece a decade and a half ago told me almost every single missionary there got arrested at one point or another. Early to mid-90s-ish. Greek Orthodox Church is obviously quite powerful there and religious idenitity is still very strong, EU rules notwithstanding. Hence the brouhaha a few years back (was it ever settled? I haven't followed) regarding whether or not to remove one's religion from their national ID card.

Bookslinger said...

S. Faux,

I don't think AoF #12 addresses what rules homeowner associations come up with.

The situations described in the Dr's post, that of the homeowner association (or local jurisdiction) prohibiting door-to-door speech, has been ruled unconstitutional or invalid by the Supreme Court. So in that respect, the missionaries would not be in violation of anything.

There is also the possibility that some missionaries were told or asked to be test cases so there could be a court ruling in a particular case or jurisdiction.

Dr. B's post illustrates that getting arrested is not synonymous with breaking the law. Your comment didn't make clear to me that you picked up on that.

Big Daddy said...

I recall a situation in New Delhi during the mid-1990's when the Indian government became aware that our missionaries lacked the proper visas and were proselyting on tourist visas which they would renew periodically by traveling to Nepal and re-entering India. The Indian government was prepared to shut down the mission and a number of missionaries had to leave. I'm not sure how widespread the practice of sending missionaries into countries without proper visas is or was, but I have heard anecdotal evidence of similar practices in other countries. I realize that some laws may seem trivial, but it seems that the long term objectives and image of the church would be best served by adhering to the tenets of the 12th Article of Faith when establishing a missionary presence abroad.

Jonathan and gabriel said...

I was "kidnapped" by cops in Mexico who extorted cash in exchange for the safe return of my companion. I'm happy to say that those policemen ended up in a Mexican jail.

More to the topic of the blog, I think the church already has a standard to follow. If the country does not allow proselyting missionaries, we need to respect that law and wait patiently for it to change. The church is not smuggling missionaries into mainland China. On the other hand, where a country allows proselyting, mission presidents need to be careful to instruct missionaries on what they can and can't do. In my time working at the MTC and from my own service as a missionary, I have heard dozens of stories about missionaries being arrested. I have never seen one case where the missionaries weren't released from jail.

So, I feel that where the Church is allowed in a nation, we need to go ahead full speed. If something happens that lands a missionary in jail, it is just another situation like the ones we see in the Book of Mormon (Alma, Helaman), and another example of what happened to Joseph Smith. If we are thrown in jail (unjustly) so be it. The truth will prevail. It always has and always will. As my mission president advised us, if a missionary ever finds himself in jail... what should he do? Start teaching the inmates!

CJ Beckstrom said...
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