WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to confront a particularly tough separation of church and state issue by deciding whether a town can require permits from Jehovah's Witnesses or others who want to solicit door-to-door. Jehovah's Witnesses routinely go door-to-door to distribute literature and recruit members. A village ordinance in Stratton, Ohio, requires members of the faith - and others, from door-to-door salesmen to politicians rounding up votes - to get the mayor's permission before soliciting and to display the permit for homeowners who ask to see it. Jehovah's Witnesses sued the village in a church-state case with broad free-speech implications, and the justices agreed yesterday to hear their appeal of a lower court's decision for Stratton. "Permission to preach comes from God and not man," said Paul Polidoro, attorney for Jehovah's Witnesses, who have not solicited door-to-door in Stratton during the three years the permits have been required. Village leaders said permits are free and nobody has ever been denied one. The ordinance is reasonable in "weighing the First Amendment rights of canvassers against the right of homeowners to security, privacy and peacefulness in their homes," they told the Supreme Court. The Constitution's First Amendment guarantees both free speech and the free exercise of religion. An appellate court ruled the ordinance does not discriminate against Jehovah's Witnesses because it demands the same permit of everybody. The Supreme Court probably will hear the case early next year, with a ruling expected by summer. The justices restricted the issue to the First Amendment ramifications of requiring approval for all door-to-door advocacy, including political pamphleteering. Stratton requires people planning solicitations to divulge to the mayor names, addresses for the past five years and names and addresses of their affiliations. A homeowner can demand to see the permit, and violators can be charged with misdemeanors. Lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses said if church members were to complete permit requests, they would lose the right of citizens to practice their religion anonymously. The court handled a related issue in 1995. Justices ruled that Ohio could not fine a woman for distributing unsigned leaflets opposing a proposed local school tax. "Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority in the court's 7-2 ruling. The Supreme Court handled door-to-door solicitation cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses in the 1930s and 1940s. This case is broader, applying to all solicitors including candidates for office. "This is a tricky one," said Gregory Magarian, who teaches constitutional law at Villanova University. "The x factor is how far is the court going to go in saying it's OK for the city to protect privacy in the home this way." Church lawyers said similar permit requirements have popped up in other jurisdictions over the years. Neither the church nor First Amendment scholars keep track of how many localities have such requirements. U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. ruled in 1999 that Stratton could not limit activity from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as it initially tried to do. He ordered that stipulation to be changed to reasonable hours, but upheld the permitting process. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this year that the ordinance does not discriminate because it put the same requirements on all people, regardless of their message or purpose. Stratton should not be stopped from "protecting its residents from fraud and undue annoyance in their homes," the court said. Any of the fewer than 300 residents of Stratton can notify the village that they do not want to be solicited. QUESTIONS: 1. Should there be a law stipulating a separation between church and state? 2. Should religious groups be required to carry permits to preach the gospel? 3. Has the Constitution's ability to protect people's rights been so abused that it has been removed from its initial purpose? To give ultimate freedom in decision making?