I was wrong about religious proselytizing in National Parks

July 4, 2019 • 5:30 pm

Yesterday, incensed by the presence of a pair of proselytizing Jehovah’s Witnesses in a lovely little National Park, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, I wrote a post wondering whether this kind of leaflet-mongering was legal, or somehow violated the First Amendment.

According to reader Jenny Haniver’s comment on that post, my suspicions that this flouted the First Amendment was wrong. The Supreme Court and other courts have ruled that not only is religious activity permitted in national parks, but you don’t even need a permit to proselytize.

Looking back, I should have realized this. After all, religious speech is just a form of speech, and if free speech is permitted in National Parks, which it is on many government properties (sometimes you have to get a permit), then religious speech should be as well.

So perhaps I overreacted. I guess the sight of a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking to spread their odious doctrine in a National Park was more than I could take, and I had to find out if it was legal. Apparently it was. My apologies for raising a fuss, but I, for one, have learned something.

That said, I still think groups should be required to get a permit to demonstrate or pass out literature in national parks, and I’m still offended that the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even have the decency to leave us alone to enjoy nature. It’s bad enough that they knock on our doors to ask us if we have a minute to hear the Good News.

Here I am enjoying the beautiful lava beach behind the main part of the park.

And here’s my message to all you godless heathens:

59 thoughts on “I was wrong about religious proselytizing in National Parks

  1. At least you have the grace to admit that you made an honest mistake. The JWs cannot do that, and have to dress up their doctrinal changes using the euphemism “new light”.

      1. When we say “free speech” we really mean “free expression”. There’s loads of legal precedent for text, art, movies, songs etc etc etc being considered to be “speech” for the purposes of the First Amendment.

        1. I was being incredulous. His argument seems to be they were pamphletting not speaking. Which is a silly argument.

      1. Good point, I don’t remember seeing JW’s in NZ but Mormon churches are there in abundance. Apparently the Mormon religion is popular with the Maories.

    1. Because they’re advertising their own opinions. The tent, I assume, is for shade, just as the chairs are for being comfortable.

      If someone wants to make available leaflets saying, “block the Alabama anti-abortion bill,” they are also engaging in free speech. If they want to have a tent to keep them out of the hot Hawaii sun and chairs to be comfortable because they’ll be there for some time, that doesn’t change the nature of their speech. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to have leaflets with their opinions — their free expression — on them? And why shouldn’t they be allowed to have a tent so small that only a couple of people can fit under it?

  2. As I retired National Park Ranger and now a frequent National Park visitor, I could do without religious prosyletizing in the parks. I could do without it anywhere, but I go to parks to get away from all the crap we put up with in society be it politics, religion, or any ideology. The only thing I want to see is reminders to all visitors to be safe and to protect the park resources now, and for future generations.

    1. I agree with you. In my opinion, if religious proselytizing must take place, let it be on private land outside the boundaries of the national parks. Selling/promoting your religion is not free speech as far as I’m concerned. If I want to know about your religion, I will read a book or seek out a knowledgeable person.

      I don’t even like having legitimate businesses in the parks. I want them kept as pristine as possible for future generations.

      1. “Selling/promoting your religion is not free speech as far as I’m concerned. If I want to know about your religion, I will read a book or seek out a knowledgeable person.”

        Why isn’t it free speech? Why isn’t it like any other opinion? Should this also be the case for someone who wants to educate people on why abortion is a legal necessity? They’re only allowed to do this in one part of the park. You should be able to express any legal opinion, even if I don’t like it.

        I may not want to hear about their religion, but that’s why free speech exists: to protect speech despite other people not wanting to hear it.

    1. He will want Jerry to talk to a lawyer, being out of his element and all. 🙄

      Good on Jerry for admitting his error.

  3. Just be thankful it wasn’t the Hebrew Israelites of Lincoln Memorial fame of several months ago.

    JW’s knocked on my door some years ago. I was halfway through shaving, with shaving cream in glorious disarray on my face, and clad in a housecoat to boot. I treated it as a test of their good manners when I congenially answered the door. Of course they pressed on with their proselytizing, apparently owing me no consideration for their inconsideration. Or maybe they simply didn’t notice. “Situational Awareness” and all that.

    1. And yet again, I am reminded of “Kubla Kahn”. In fact, I was reminded of it for the same reason already. I am on “vacation”, which means that I am working at home, and, as the weather is pleasant in the shade, I was sitting on my porch, notebook, laptop, and several reference books and binders arrayed on my lap and the table. The particular problem I am trying to address, so as to not need to devote the weekend to it, is a control system design that needs to meet rigid criteria for safety and regulatory compliance, as well as the task requirements (Yes, this is vague, but if I could express it clearly and completely in two sentences, there would be no issue).

      Four or so hours in, I am starting to write the requirement specification, but most of it is in my head. Then one of those insufferable servants of an imaginary power steps up and WOULD NOT LEAVE. By the time I finally eradicated myself of the pest, I had so thoroughly lost my chain of thought that I put my laptop away,put the other material on the table inside the door,and grabbed an adult beverage.

      I need to start over tomorrow.

      I hate these pests.

      1. These unsolicited religious solicitations is why I finally put a “No Solicitations” sign on my house. Once in a great while in the past, I would get an impish urge to allow these purveyors of religion on my doorstep, keep my door open and share with them what I know about their religion. It wasn’t pretty. Most of them didn’t seem to know about the flaws in the Bible. I let them go when I was ready and not before. I doubt they learned anything from me, but I never do from them either.

        1. I had a friend who would greet them with surprise and joy and announce he wanted to convert them to devil worship. To meet his quota.
          I gotta say I admire that tack, but I just politely say no and ask them not to come back. Haven’t had any in years.

        2. My mother found out that our local Jehovah’s witnesses operate a “do not visit” list. So she asked to be put on it. It worked for a couple of years and then she got a visit.

          “I thought I was on your do not visit list.”

          “We’re just checking that you still want this to be the case.”

          “Yes I do.”

          “OK, thank you, good bye.”

          On another occasion, two women (Mormons I think) arrived at the door with a girl of possibly 10 or 11. They pushed the girl forwards to do the talking and got the worst tongue lashing I’ve ever heard coming’s g from my mother for exploiting a child in that way.

          1. I’ll give them credit: they are dedicated! And it must be tough going door to door all day getting rejected. I’ve never had a JW come to my door and be anything but polite and willing to leave the moment I asked. Sure, I found it annoying, but I see it like someone knocking on my door to promote a candidate in an election.

            I’ve worked for a few local and federal election campaigns and remember how physically and emotionally tiring it was going door to door for hours. Some people were really mean to me, most just said they weren’t interested and closed the door, and a handful asked a few questions and signed up for more information. I guess JWs are just trying to promote a different candidate, the ultimate candidate 😛

        3. Unfortunately, where I live, there is no really effective technique. I have had my sign stolen several times (caught one ‘home remodel’ salesman on camera pulling it off and throwing it in the bushes), and there are so many exemptions to the ‘do not knock’ list it is worthless (political, utility, and religious exempted and are the worst offenders, but unregistered/illegitimate operators ignore itcompletely). The police have better things to do unless there is outright fraud.

          Fun story: A few years ago, a contractor was trying the driveway scam– yup, there are still people pulling it, so I guess there are still people falling for it– on a neighbor. She was actually in the hospital at the time, so no one was home. This idiot was banging on the front door of her house, his truck parked on the street with no visible identifying signage on it. I had time to walk across the street while he was still banging. There was a small magnet sign on the other side of the truck. The town requires registration for door-to-door solicitation. He had no visible ID, and he got real nasty when I asked to see his door-to-door permit. He blew his top when I took his picture and a picture of his truck, screaming that it is illegal for me to do that and I was violating his rights and so on. Rather than explain the law to him, I just asked what country he thought he was in. “America!”. I said that I thought he was confused and thought he was in Russia. He didn’t get it… I reported him to the state and found that he was near the top of the list for fines during several of the previous years (uncompleted work, incompetent work, taking payment before commencing and then never doing the work, and so on). About a year later, he ended up in prison. I laughed.

          1. Ha! That’s a great story. Good for you for standing up for you neighbor! Too many people these days don’t even know or care about their neighbors, to say nothing of wanting to help them or get involved in their business. It used to be that you knew your neighbors, said hello to them, and talked to them. These days, it seems people actively avoid knowing who lives next door, no less offering them help or having a chat. I’ve lived in both the suburbs and the city and my experiences have been the same. Even when living in an apartment that has a door within ten feet of at least three or four others, nobody wanted to know or engage with anyone else.

            There was an enormous snow storm here a few years ago that took down all the local power lines. Power wasn’t restored for three days. Thankfully, I have a backup generator that runs on natural gas. I finally got to know my neighbors during that time, as ambassadors from six of the 14 house on my street came to my house several times to charge their electronics, and a couple of them to keep some food in my refrigerator. I was happy to help and hoped it was the beginning of a sense of community on our street, but it was unfortunately not. Once power was restored, relations returned to their previous mode. I occasionally get a wave from someone if I’m driving by, but that’s it 🙁

            1. Have a party on occasion, or invite one or two of them at a time to dinner. My wife and I have committed to doing this in an attempt to combat just what you describe. We haven’t been very consistent at it but when we’ve had some people over it has always been a success. In particular a New Years party we had turned out to be near legendary. Neighbors and friends tell stories about it all the time and are always asking when the next one is.

              1. You know what? That’s a darn great idea! Thank you.

                I read about towns like Ruddington in today’s feline trifecta. I read about small villages in all sorts of countries all over Europe. Of course, it’s very different there. Many families have lived there for ages, or there are just one or two local pubs and so everyone meets everyone, or there are places where people rely on each other to live their lives as best they can. I don’t think you can ever make an American suburb like that.

                As much as I love living in the suburbs (I prefer a nice plot of land, peace and quiet, lots of greenery, etc.), it will never be like those other places. The US is very unique in this way. Sure, there are small towns dotting the US, but most people live in big cities or the suburbs that surround them. And, in a lot of the small towns where everyone knows everyone else, they’re bound by religion: they go to church and see each other and whatnot.

  4. I think you could say a bargain has been struck by the constitution and our aim to live in a free society. You’d love for them to STFU, but you clench you teeth and bear the cross of toleration. It’s a compromise.

    1. Yep, that’s the compromise that free speech is always meant to protect: the speech that most people don’t want to hear.

      Also, nice work there with “bear the cross” 😀

  5. As always, good onya (sp?) for correcting your original post. I wouldn’t even say “error,” as you clearly wondered whether such activities were allowed or not. But this is the way discourse and intellectual discussions progress, and not by “doubling down” when some previous position has been called out.

    OK, so the JWs are allowed to do this. But I still wonder if individual National Parks would allow comparable non-Christian activities. Although it would be tempting to test out that theory, probably the best response is to ignore them, realizing that their misguided attempt to “educate” others probably just makes them look silly, and drives people away from religion, if anything.

  6. Ok, only a couple of sips of wine so I should be safe to comment.

    Unfortunately, the rest of us have better things to do with our free time than poking our beliefs in the face of others. Otherwise there would be an atheist tent next to the JW’s and a line of pro choicer’s to protect the folks attempting to access Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics.

  7. What makes this an interesting issue is the seeming conflict between the establishment clause and the free speech and assembly clauses. I say “seeming conflict” because the First Amendment does not require the government to shun religious speech altogether, only that it be neutral. That neutrality is important to us atheists, which is why I hope PCC uses his good offices to suggest to the Hawaii Secular Society to set up a kiosk in that exact same spot.

    1. It would be interesting if other religions set up kiosks as well. I wonder if the Christians and the Witnesses will object to it.

  8. Well, you made me look quite stupid as well since I was living in the past. You know, before the Catholics took over the court and now drag religion everywhere, even to national parks. Still, it makes no sense because religion is not allowed on any government property, public schools or other municipal buildings. Because they want to turn national parks into speaker’s corner in Hyde Park they allow religion in? I suppose next all religions will be receiving land from the parks to build churches as well. After all, if they are going to foam at the mouth about religion they should have a building to do it in. A tax free religion on federal tax free land spewing out free crap for a price. Yes, that’s religion.

    1. You didn’t look stupid, Randall. You looked like someone concerned about separation of church and state. We all are. But the Constitution is what the Constitution is.

    2. Not stupid. US Constitutional law seems to me to be a bit of a car crash.

      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

      The law as written only prohibits the establishment of a state religion. It also prohibits making laws that restrict the free exercise of religion, so theoretically, making a law that bans proselytising in National Parks is unconstitutional.

      However, case law has expanded the scope of the amendment. For example, “free exercise” now means “free exercise within the law” and “the establishment of religion” now seems to mean “having anything to do with religion”.

      This is all fine and good and I would not change the modern interpretation, but it does mean, to have a full understanding of what the Establishment Cause actually means for religion and the state, you probably need to be a constitutional lawyer.

      1. “…to have a full understanding of what the Establishment Cause actually means for religion and the state, you probably need to be a constitutional lawyer”

        I mean, in this particular case, it was pretty easy to just do a quick Google search and find cases like Boardley v. US Department of Interior.

  9. BTW, you were not wrong. Your headline read “Is a National Park violating the First Amendment?” and by Betteridge’s law you were right.

  10. My favorite JW spotting happened at a rural, mountain-pass rest-stop in the PNW. As we pulled in – it was the wee hours of the morning – I noticed some very primly dressed fellow travelers. The ladies had long, elegant floral dresses and the gents suits. They were all attractive and well groomed. Once in the restroom, I noticed a Watch Tower floating in the toilet and realized what was going on. I wonder, do they pull straws to see who gets the rest-stop gig? Do they send their best and brightest (or best looking) to the rest-stop? How many people convert at rest-stops? These are the important questions I ask myself.

  11. When I saw the photo of the Jehovah’s Witnesses displaying their tracts in a national park, I made the same assumption and was as indignant as PCC(E), et al. But as I searched for some statute to validate my assumption and commentary so that I could understand, to my surprise I found just the opposite, confirmed by others on the post. A lot to ruminate on.

    Nonetheless, free speech be damned even though I’d have to defend it, the thought of Jehovah’s Witnesses cluttering up national parks and similar spaces in this way is deeply offensive; and the cruel irony of them despoiling such a majestic environment as Yosemite with their idiotic tracts that deny evolution, geological as well as animal, is simply contra naturam, as the Catholics would say.

    And free speech be damned, if I had my druthers I’d ban any and all secular and religious displays that disturb and disrupt the designated national space, except for minimalist explanatory matter relative to the specific space.

    1. I’ve always thought of a National Park as a place where one could enjoy a modicum of quietude, if not always solitude. But, from a NY Times article of a couple years ago, I gather that not all sub cultures in the U.S. have that same view. Apparently national parks are more and more becoming places for loud partying, and who is anyone of a contemplative mindset to object? It will soon get to the point that a cemetery will be the last refuge of quietude, and that may not be a guaranteed if the Whoop-and-Holler crowd get their way.

      1. I was in a cemetery recently, and a group of birders passed through. They were fairly quiet but when they caught a glimpse of some rather rare bird they began to gasp quite loudly. I didn’t shush them though. I thought they were justified.

  12. Maybe the first Amendment isn’t the problem but it’s still smells fishy. Businesses are not free to set up tents and advertise their products.

    I wish I had the guts to do what PCC(E) did.

  13. The irony is that Pu’uhonua was “the place of refuge”, where Hawaiians who broke the brutal Kapu system of class, legal and religious judgement could find refuge. Roughly speaking, it was theocracy on steroids. But there you were untouchable, even in the face of certain death.

    But you can’t escape the JW there. lol!!!!

  14. Thank you, Jerry. You are truly not prideful and a good man. It’s difficult to admit when you’re wrong about something, especially publicly and with no attempt to explain why you should have been right, or why you would have been right in the past, or to make other excuses. You did a good job here.

    I really mean it. I’m always amazed when someone — especially a rather famous intellectual like yourself — is willing to say, “I was wrong,” without reservations. Most public-facing intellectuals would argue to their dying breath about why the should be right, to say nothing of the average person.

    Being willing to own up to mistakes is, I think, just as much a sign of dignity and courage as standing up for what is right.

    Good on ya, mate 😉

  15. The current administration is busy expanding the web of religion into more government space. In a News Release issued Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced a new directive on Religious Symbols in VA Facilities

    The new policies will:

    Allow the inclusion in appropriate circumstances of religious content in publicly accessible displays at VA facilities.

    Allow patients and their guests to request and be provided religious literature, symbols and sacred texts during visits to VA chapels and during their treatment at VA.

    Allow VA to accept donations of religious literature, cards and symbols at its facilities and distribute them to VA patrons under appropriate circumstances or to a patron who requests them.

    The new policies are in response to a suit filed two months ago by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation against a VA Medical Center in New Hampshire that included a Bible in the lobby display.

  16. If the National Park Service has designated a portion of the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park parking lot a First Amendment public forum — which essentially means a free-speech free-fire zone — it would be patently unconstitutional then to bar anyone’s speech on the basis of its content, religious or otherwise.

    Knowing that the religious are thereby permitted to proselytize seems a small price to pay for free expression for all.

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