United States Supreme Court cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses

United States Supreme Court cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses

Since the 1940s, the Jehovah's Witnesses have often invoked the First Amendment's freedom of religion clauses to protect their ability to engage in the that is central to their faith. This series of litigation has helped to define civil liberties case law in the United States and Canada.


According to Shawn Peters, Jehovah's Witnesses have helped to widen the definition of civil liberties in most western societies, hence broadening the rights of millions of people, due to their firm stand and determination. [cite book |title=Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution |first=Shawn Francis |last=Peters |publisher=University Press of Kansas |year=2002]

In the United States of America and several other countries, the legal struggles of the Jehovah's Witnesses have yielded some of the most important judicial decisions regarding freedom of religion, press and speech. In the United States, many Supreme Court cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses are now landmark decisions of First Amendment law. Of the 72 cases involving the Jehovah's Witnesses that have been brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court has ruled in favor of them 47 times. Even the cases that the Jehovah's Witnesses lost helped the U.S. to more clearly define the limits of First Amendment rights. Former Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone jokingly suggested "The Jehovah's Witnesses ought to have an endowment in view of the aid which they give in solving the legal problems of civil liberties." "Like it or not," observed American author and editor Irving Dilliard, "Jehovah's Witnesses have done more to help preserve our freedoms than any other religious group."

Professor C. S. Braden wrote: "They have performed a signal service to democracy by their fight to preserve their civil rights, for in their struggle they have done much to secure those rights for every minority group in America." [cite book |title=These Also Believe |first=C.S. last=Braden]

"The cases that the Witnesses were involved in formed the bedrock of 1st Amendment protections for all citizens," said Paul Polidoro, a lawyer who argued the Watchtower Society's case before the Supreme Court in February 2002. "These cases were a good vehicle for the courts to address the protections that were to be accorded free speech, the free press and free exercise of religion. In addition, the cases marked the emergence of individual rights as an issue within the U.S. court system.

Before the Jehovah’s Witnesses brought several dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1930s and 1940s, the Court had handled few cases contesting laws that restricted freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Until then, the First Amendment had only been applied to Congress and the federal government.

However, the cases brought before the Court by the Jehovah's Witnesses allowed the Court to consider a range of issues: mandatory flag salute, sedition, free speech, literature distribution and draft law. These cases proved to be pivotal moments in the formation of constitutional law. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ court victories have strengthened rights including the protection of religious conduct from federal and state interference, the right to abstain from patriotic rituals and military service and the right to engage in public discourse.

During the World War II era, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses in several landmark cases that helped pave the way for the modern civil rights movement. In all, Jehovah's Witnesses brought 23 separate First Amendment actions before the U.S. Supreme Court between 1938 and 1946.

The U.S. Supreme Court has reviewed 72 cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses as an organization, of which 47 were decided in their favor.

Significant cases have affirmed rights such as these:
* Right to Refrain from Compulsory Flag Salute
* Conscientious objection to military service
* Preaching in public (proselytizing)


Because of their non-orthodox beliefs and practices, the Jehovah's Witnesses have faced persecution, violence and government strictures on the exercise of civil liberties such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This opposition was strongest in the United States from 1930-1950 and in Canada from 1930-1960.

Archibald Cox wrote, "The principal victims of religious persecution in the United States in the twentieth century were Jehovah's Witnesses." [cite book |first=Archibald |last=Cox |title=The Court and the Constitution |year=1987]

The Legal Plan

In response to this persecution, the Jehovah's Witnesses adopted a strategy of litigating in the courts to assert their civil liberties. With the support of Rutherford, Hayden C. Covington devised what the Witnesses call "The Legal Plan". Covington's plan to bring Jehovah's Witness issues before the Supreme Court was unique in that it was the first attempt to apply a broadly conceived plan of what has been termed "vigilant" or "disciplined" litigation to First Amendment issues.

The objective of the plan was to get the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court justices by challenging the U.S. legal system through appeals and trials. Covington picked which communities were to be targeted, favoring areas that were mainly Catholic. Watchtower staff that were sent to these areas carried a letter that notified local police and law enforcement of Witnesses' activities. The Witnesses were prepared to be arrested and were coached in how to conduct themselves in that eventuality. Covington planned for the cases to be tried in the courts and then challenged through appeals all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Covington instructed staff members in the field not to apply for permits to preach as being required to do so was considered insulting to God. He asserted that, under the First Amendment, preaching was a right, not a privilege.

Over a period of 15 years, Covington and his staff of Watchtower lawyers legally substantiated the Witnesses' right to distribute literature door-to-door, on public streets and on streets owned by private corporations and the federal government; the right to carry out these activities without first securing a permit or paying a tax; the right to use sound-amplifying equipment to disseminate their beliefs; and the right to be protected from arrest under unconstitutional ordinances. By implementing an extensive, detailed legal plan to overturn ordinances that interfered with their evangelical mission, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society broadened protection under the First Amendment for their members and for all Americans.

The Jehovah's Witnesses cases

Of the 72 cases brought by the Jehovah's Witnesses before the U.S. Supreme Court, four are known as the "Jehovah's Witnesses cases" because the decisions for all four were handed down by the US Supreme Court on May 3, 1943.

#In the one paragraph Opelika II "per curiam" decision (319 US 103), the Court vacated "Jones v. Opelika" from 1942 on the basis of the principles articulated in Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
#In "Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" (319 US 105), the Court struck down a City of Jeannette, PA ordinance requiring a licensing fee in order to distribute literature for sale from door to door.
#In "Martin v. City of Struthers" (319 US 141), the Court invalidated a city ordinance from Struthers, OH forbidding knocking on doors/ringing bells to distribute "handbills, circulars or other advertisements."
#In "Douglas v. City of Jeannette", the Court upheld the jurisdiction of the District Court to proceed with criminal prosecutions of 21 Jehovah's Witnesses arrested in Jeannette, PA during a Witness "Watch Tower Campaign" in 1939 in Jeannette despite the fact that another case (Murdock) was already in progress and could invalidate all the arrests in Douglas.

Compulsory Flag Salute / Pledge of Allegiance

In the 1940's, more than 2,000 children were expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag because they were members of Jehovah's Witnesses.

* "Minersville School District v. Gobitis" (1940)
* "West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette" (1943)

Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)

A school board in Minersville, Pennsylvania expelled 12-year-old Lillian Gobitas and her 10-year-old brother Billy for not pledging allegiance in the fall of 1935. Two years later, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the expulsion had violated their rights. In 1939 an appeals court agreed, and the school board took the case to the Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that a school district's interest in creating national unity was sufficient to allow them to require students to salute the flag.

The Court's decision triggered what Lillian Gobitas later called “open season on Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Angry mobs assaulted Witnesses, destroyed their property, boycotted their businesses and vandalized their houses of worship. In Little Rock, Arkansas, construction workers stormed a Witness convention, beat them with pipes, and shot and killed two of them. In Kennebunk, Maine, a mob of thousands burned a Witness hall.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appealed publicly for calm, while newspaper editorials and the American legal community condemned the Gobitas decision as a blow to liberty. Several justices signaled their belief that the case had been “wrongly decided.”

The 1943 West Virginia v. Barnette decision reversed the decision of Minersville School District v. Gobitis.Argued by Witness attorney Hayden C. Covington, the case revisited the issue of mandatory flag salute. Justice Jackson penned the majority opinion stating, in part, that, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Court reversed a 1940 decision that said it was constitutional for a school to compel students to salute the flag.

Three years after it had decided that Jehovah's Witnesses could be forced to salute the flag and say the pledge of allegiance, the high court dramatically changed its position. In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that school children could not be forced to pledge allegiance to or salute the U.S. flag. The "Barnette" decision overturned an earlier case, "Minersville School District vs. Gobitis" (1940), in which the court had held that Witnesses could be forced against their will to pay homage to the flag.

elective Service Classification / Conscientious Objector Status

Jehovah's Witnesses were among a number of religious groups and individuals that refused to do military service during World War II, claiming conscientious objection to war. Bringing eight cases on the issue to the Supreme Court in the 1940s and '50s, Jehovah's Witnesses helped define the parameters of conscientious objector status. Most notably in 1953, Jehovah's Witnesses expanded the definition that applied to themselves and others: Now ministers could be considered conscientious objectors even if they engage in secular work.

* Falbo v. United States (1944)
* Estep v. United States (1946)
* Gibson v. United States (1946)
* Cox v. United States (1947)
* Dickinson v. United States (1953)
* Gonzales v. United States (1955)
* Sicurella v. United States (1955)
* Simmons v. United States (1955)
* Witmer v. United States (1955)
* Gonzales v. United States (1960)
* Hart v. United States (1968)
* Holmes v. United States (1968)
* Pryor v. United States (1971)

License Requirement for Literature Distribution / Parade & Park Permit

In Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Court ruled that the statute requiring a license to solicit for religious purposes was a prior restraint that vested the state with excessive power in determining which groups must obtain a license.

Following Cantwell, the free-speech cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses rolled on. In 1943 alone, three major decisions were decided in favor of the organization that had far broader implications for free speech. In May, the Court overturned a year-old decision in Jones v. Opelika and declared it unconstitutional to charge a flat fee to distribute literature.

"Freed from that controlling precedent," wrote Justice William O. Douglas, "we can restore to their high, constitutional position the liberties of itinerant evangelists who disseminate their religious beliefs and the tenets of their faith through distribution of literature."

In the same decision, in the companion case, Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the majority also found that a Pennsylvania town could not tax the distribution of Jehovah's Witness books and pamphlets.

* Lovell v. City of Griffin (1938)
* Schneider v. State (of New Jersey) (1939)
* Cantwell v. State of Connecticut (1940)
* Cox v. New Hampshire (1941)
* Jones v. City of Opelika (1942)
* Busey v. District of Columbia (1943)
* Douglas v. City of Jeannette (1943)
* Jamison v. State of Texas (1943)
* Jones v. City of Opelika (1943)
* Largent v. State of Texas (1943)
* Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943)
* Follett v. Town of McCormick (1944)
* Saia v. People of the State of New York (1948)
* Niemotko v. Maryland (1951)
* Fowler v. Rhode Island (1951)
* Poulos v. New Hampshire (1953)
* Watchtower Bible & Tract Society v. Village of Stratton (2002)

Lovell v. City of Griffin (1938)

In Lovell v. City of Griffin, the Supreme Court ruled it was not constitutional for a city to require written permission from the City Manager to distribute religious material.

chneider v. New Jersey (1939)

In 1939, the Supreme Court invalidated an Irvington, New Jersey, ordinance that provided: "No person ... shall canvass, solicit, distribute circulars, or other matter, or call from house to house ... without first having reported to and received a written permit from the Chief of Police." In striking the ordinance down, the high court wrote, unequivocally: "To require a censorship through license which makes impossible the free and unhampered distribution of pamphlets strikes at the very heart of the constitutional guarantees." [Schneider v. New Jersey]

Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)

The Court ruled that the statute requiring a license to solicit for religious purposes was a prior restraint that vested the state with excessive power in determining which groups must obtain a license.

Cantwell v. Connecticut was a 1940 Supreme Court decision in which three Jehovah's Witnesses, Newton Cantwell and his two sons, were convicted of unlicensed soliciting of funds for charitable or religious purposes. A Connecticut statute required licenses for those soliciting for religious or charitable purposes. The Cantwells said they did not get a license because they did not believe the government had the right to determine whether the Witnesses were a religion. They maintained the statute denied the trio their due process rights under the 14th Amendment, and it also denied them their freedom of speech and religious expression.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Justice Owen Roberts wrote in a unanimous opinion that "to condition the solicitation of aid for the perpetuation of religious views or systems upon a license, the grant of which rests in the exercise of a determination by state authority as to what is a religious cause, is to lay a forbidden burden upon the exercise of liberty protected by the Constitution." The Cantwell decision marked the first time the U.S. Supreme Court incorporated the free exercise clause into the 14th Amendment, something it would do from that time forward.

Cox v. New Hampshire (1941)

The Court unanimously upheld the convictions of Jehovah's Witnesses for engaging in a public parade without a license. The Court ruled that, although the government cannot regulate the contents of speech, it can place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on speech for the public safety.

Jones v. Opelika I (1942)

The Court upheld a statute prohibiting the selling of literature without a license because it only covered individuals engaged in a commercial activity rather than a religious ritual.

Jones v. Opelika II (1943)

The Court ruled the practice of charging a flat fee for people distributing literature was unconstitutional. The freedom of press was not to be restricted only to those who can afford to pay the licensing fee.

Douglas v. City of Jeannette (1943)

The Supreme Court refused to prevent the City of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, from threatening prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses who were violating a law requiring the licensing of people selling books even while that law was being challenged before the Supreme Court.

Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1943)

The Court found that the Jeanette ordinance requiring solicitors to purchase a license from the borough was an unconstitutional tax on the Jehovah's Witnesses' right to freely exercise their religion.

Follett v. Town of McCormick (1944)

Should people who earn their living by selling or distributing religious materials be required to pay the same licensing fees and taxes as are expected of those who sell or distribute non-religious materials? The Supreme Court held that such licenses are unconstitutional.

Watchtower Society v. Village of Stratton (2002)

At issue was a question about anonymity in the First Amendment. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society disputed an ordinance in Stratton, Ohio that required a permit in order to preach from door-to-door. In 2002, the case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court ("Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton — ussc|536|150|2002"). Ruling in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the court said the ordinance went too far. The Court held that making it a misdemeanor to engage in door-to-door advocacy without first registering with the mayor and receiving a permit violate the first Amendment as it applies to religious proselytizing, anonymous political speech, and the distribution of handbills. [cite web |url=http://www.oyez.org/oyez/resource/case/1498/ |title=Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York v. Village of Stratton |publisher=The Oyez Project]

"It is offensive," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, "not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society, that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so."

Private Property Rights vs. Religious Freedom

* Martin v. City of Struthers (1943)
* Marsh v. Alabama (1946)
* Tucker v. Texas (1946)

Martin v. City of Struthers (1943)

In Martin v. City of Struthers, the Court invalidated another Ohio city ordinance enforced against the religious activities of Jehovah's Witnesses. The Struthers, Ohio ordinance flatly prohibited the door-to-door delivery of literature or handbills. In striking the Struthers ordinance down, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "While door to door distributors of literature may be either a nuisance or a blind for criminal activities, they may also be useful members of society engaged in the dissemination of ideas in accordance with the best tradition of free discussion."

"Fighting Words" Doctrine

* Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)

Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)

The fighting words doctrine was established by "Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire" (1942). In that case, a Jehovah's Witness had reportedly told a New Hampshire town marshal who was attempting to prevent him from preaching "You are a God-damned racketeer" and "a damned fascist" and was arrested. The court upheld the arrest, thus establishing that "insulting or 'fighting words', those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace" are among the "well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech [which] the prevention and punishment of...have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem."

Child Labor Laws and Religious Freedom

* Prince v. Massachusetts (1944)

Prince v. Massachusetts (1944)

In a 5-4 Court Decision, the Court upheld Massachusetts' restriction on the abilities of children to sell religious literature.

"Patriot" Statutes and Religious Freedom

* Taylor v. State of Mississippi (1943)

Unemployment Compensation Benefits and Religious Freedom

* Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. Div. (1981)

License Tag Motto and Religious Freedom

* Wooley v. Maynard (1977)


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