The ruling comes nearly seven years after two religious corporations filed a lawsuit against the government of the U.S. Caribbean territory arguing that Jehovah's Witnesses were being denied several rights, including freedom of speech, religion and travel.
Unlike in the 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 to control a neighborhood's entrances.
William Ramirez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Puerto Rico, praised the ruling.
"Door-to-door communication is a vital means of dissemination for small groups with limited resources to spread their message," he said Wednesday.
A three-judge panel in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in Boston called the case "novel and difficult" in its nearly 30-page decision issued Monday.
The panel ruled Puerto Rican gated neighborhoods cannot have locked and unmanned gates that bar access to public streets. It said they have to hire guards, unless the community can provide a substantial justification for not doing so.
"Conceivably, a controlled access area might be very small, its residents' resources very limited, or both," the ruling said.
The panel ordered Puerto Rico's district court to enforce its ruling and review any objections that communities might file.
While ruling for the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses to be given access, the appeals panel upheld a 2005 district court ruling that found constitutional a Puerto Rico law allowing neighborhoods with controlled access and giving guards the right to request names and identifications of any visitors.
"Compared to an airport search, a few questions about identity and purpose for entering an urbanization seem tame indeed," the ruling stated.
The ruling also technically applies to Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island because they are covered by the 1st Circuit. But it is unlikely to have any impact there since U.S. law considers streets inside gated communities to be private, said Paul Polidoro, assistant general counsel for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., which oversees administrative issues for Jehovah's Witnesses.
Luis Pabon Roca, a lawyer who represented the northern municipality of Caguas, said he considered the ruling a victory because the law allowing for gated communities was upheld as constitutional.
"In my opinion, the lawsuit was not needed," he said. "Jehovah's Witnesses have access just like any other citizen in Puerto Rico."
Several attorneys representing other municipalities in the case did not return calls for comment.
The appeal was filed by the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Puerto Rico and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc.
They estimate that Jehovah's Witnesses in Puerto Rico have been barred from entering 587 gated communities in 57 municipalities, representing a total of more than 67,000 residences. They say only about half of Puerto Rico's gated communities have guards.
Puerto Rico has 318 Jehovah's Witnesses congregations, for a total of about 25,000 members.