On Thursday, March 21st, an already shell-shocked population (in Puerto Rico) was hit with another blow against the self-imposed prisonesque security measures many urbanizations and neighborhoods have: A District Court judge, Gustavo Gelpí, ordered neighborhoods who maintain un-manned gates to provide beepers, keys or any other mode of access to the Jehova’s Witnesses. The decision is the latest chapter of a legal battle that has spanned several years by the Watchtower Bible Society (as plaintiffs) and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, several municipalities and neighborhoods (as defendants).
The case begins with the Jehova’s Witnesses (Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc.) belief that it is their religious duty to share the Bible’s message publicly and to proselytize from house to house. As such, ever since Puerto Rico enacted the Controlled Access Laws (CAL), and subsequently, neighborhoods began gating their communities, Jehova’s have been unable to do their “house to house” visits. More often than not, residents would (and still don’t) not let them in, neighborhood guards ignore their request and/or flat out deny access to them. In the case of un-manned gates, residents simply refuse to “buzz them in.”
Following many attempts by Watchtower to reach an agreement with municipalities and neighborhoods for access, they filed a declaratory action & injunction at the Puerto Rico Federal District Court. Following several procedural steps and filings, Judge Pieras dismissed Watchtower’s facial challenge to the CAL, as well as the “as applied” challenge to the CAL. In sum, he dismissed the entire suit. Watchtower, not known for their legal timidness, filed an appeal before the First Circuit. On February 7th, 2011, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit handed down its decision, remanding the case back to the District Court. The Court of Appeals held three main points:
1) That the Puerto Rico CAL are constitutional (on its face), but remanded the case and revoked the Court’s dismissal of the “as applied” constitutional challenge.
2) Reiterated that gated communities may inquire name and purpose, but following that must allow the visitor entry, regardless of the resident’s authorization.
3) Remanded the case, and held that unmanned gated communities (ie. the ones that only have an intercom) have to provide a way to man the gates, even if temporarily during the week, or otherwise allow access to the Jehova’s.
The recent decision has not sat well with many residents who lived in gated communities (which I may add, is not limited to high income families, but rather to many middle class families given the crime rate the Island has endured for decades). Typically, a visitor can only enter a gated community if a resident allows said visitor to come in. With the Court’s decision, not only to manned communities have to allow Jehova’s Witnesses to enter the neighborhood (following a brief process in which their names are registered), but un-manned communities have to give them a means to enter the urbanization whenever they choose to.
On the one hand, the Court of Appeals recognized that blocking access to the Jehova’s Witnesses impairs their First Amendment rights under the Federal Constitution. While Puerto Rico has a legitimate interest in providing security for its citizens, it could not cut the Jehova’s Witnesses from a significantly large segment of the population (i.e. those who lived in gated communities). On the other hand, Puerto Ricans depend on their gated communities to provide some type of security that is clearly not being provided by the local police force, and even then, a gated community is far from a guarantee. Although the decision is limited to Jehova’s Witnesses, other advocacy groups could soon file similar legal challenges, further eroding the self-imposed barriers many Puerto Ricans enjoy and cherish. As Puerto Rico moves towards a third year with 1,000+ murders, one has to wonder if this was the right call by Judge Gelpí.