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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Federal judge declares Humacao in contempt for ignoring Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to proselytize in gated communities

Federal judge Jay García Gregory

By The Star Staff

Federal judge Jay García Gregory has declared the Municipality of Humacao and its mayor, Julio Geigel Pérez, in contempt of court for disregarding a court order and a permanent injunction to allow Jehovah’s Witnesses access to gated communities so they can engage in their First Amendment right to proselytize.

The judge threatened to issue an arrest order against an Humacao lawyer unless the municipality obeys his order, which noted that preventing the religious groups from accessing closed communities so they could practice their door-to-door ministry violated their religious and free speech rights.

In a ruling last Wednesday granting the motion of contempt requested by Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York and Congregación Cristiana de los Testigos de Jehová de Puerto Rico, García Gregory said the Municipality of Humacao has “blatantly and repeatedly” disregarded the court’s order allowing Jehovah’s Witnesses to engage in their door-to-door public ministry in the city’s gated communities.

Gregory imposed a sanction of $7,200 on the municipality for noncompliance with the permanent injunction and the court’s order.

“Failure to comply shall result in the issuance of an arrest warrant for civil contempt against José A. Lebrón Peña as part of the legal department of the municipality,” the judge said. “No further extensions shall be granted.”

The judge noted meanwhile that the Municipality of Humacao has already deposited $1,600 with the court, so the amount due is $5,600. The sanction is in addition to the reasonable attorney fees and costs imposed.

The sanction came after the religious organizations filed a motion seeking to compel the city to abide by the court’s ruling, arguing that their core religious speech was again silenced.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses said they are unable to engage in their door-to-door public ministry in Costa Verde (aka Palmas del Mar-Costa Verde), Flamboyán Greens and Lomas de Campo Alegre, three locked, unmanned controlled-access urbanizations in Humacao due to the municipality’s refusal to deliver functional access devices for those urbanizations as clearly and unequivocally ordered by the permanent injunction.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are well known for their door-to-door public ministry, which follows the Biblical command to teach “from house to house” and “is mandated by their religion.”

In July 2016, the U.S. District court issued an order granting declaratory and permanent injunctive relief against 42 municipalities, including Humacao, to allow the religious groups access to their communities. The injunction extended a previous declaratory and injunctive relief obtained against 11 other towns.

The orders reaffirmed that Jehovah’s Witnesses have the right to enter gated communities in their vehicles and to park their vehicles within the urbanizations, that the injunction grants Jehovah’s Witnesses “round-the-clock access” to urbanizations “on a level equal to that of residents,” that pedestrian access alone does not conform with the court’s order, that the means of access provided to plaintiffs must be the same as that provided to residents of the urbanizations.

The ruling noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses were being denied several rights, including freedom of speech, religion and travel. Unlike in the mainland U.S., where streets inside gated communities are private, they are considered public thoroughfares in Puerto Rico even though gates are allowed to be erected at a neighborhood’s entrances to control traffic entering and exiting.

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