Jehovah’s Witnesses

Evangelical religious sect that engages in vigorous missionary work and holds unconventional Christian beliefs.

In 1931 an Adventist sect known as Bible Students adopted the name Jehovah’s Witnesses. Over the next two decades, their style of aggressive, unconventional evangelism resulted in numerous confrontations across the United States. This conflict resulted from their refusal to salute the U.S. flag and from their unrelenting attack on organized religions. Between 1933 and 1951 there were 18,866 arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses and about 1,500 cases of mob violence against them. The Jehovah’s Witnesses national legal department sustained a determined campaign of litigation to assert the right to exercise freely the sect’s beliefs. By 1950 it had won 150 suits in state supreme courts and more than thirty Supreme Court decisions.Religion, freedom ofAssembly and association, freedom ofSpeech, freedom of

Legal briefs filed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, usually written by their chief counsel Hayden Covington, were a strange mixture of Bible proof texts and constitutional arguments. They were, nonetheless, quite effective. In 1938 the first Jehovah’s Witnesses case to reach the Court, Lovell v. City of Griffin, raised a free press question. The Court ruled that requiring a permit from the government to distribute literature violated the prior restraint provision of the First Amendment. The Court’s 1940 landmark decision, Cantwell v. Connecticut,[case]Cantwell v. Connecticut[Cantwell v. Connecticut] held that the Fourteenth Amendment made the free exercise clause binding on the states, that public officials did not have authority to determine what causes were religious, and that breach-of-the-peace laws must be narrowly drawn. Free speech cases brought by the Jehovah’s Witnesses set important precedents. The Court ruled that it is constitutional to regulate the time, place, and manner of expression but not its content in Cox v. New Hampshire[case]Cox v. New Hampshire[Cox v. New Hampshire] (1941) and that “fighting words” are not protected speech in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire[case]Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire[Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire] (1942).

Perhaps the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ biggest setback was the 1940 ruling in Minersville School District v. Gobitis[case]Minersville School District v. Gobitis[Minersville School District v. Gobitis] that schools could expel students who refused to salute the flag. Over the next few years, however, decisions in cases involving the sect were a bellwether indicating the Court’s move to stronger support for individual liberties. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[case]West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette] (1943), the Court reversed its flag salute decision. A few months earlier in Murdock v. Pennsylvania,[case]Murdock v. Pennsylvania[Murdock v. Pennsylvania] the Court had reversed its ruling that towns could tax religious literature sold door-to-door. In a series of cases that year, the court stuck down ordinances that prohibited or limited the sect’s door-to-door solicitations and distribution of handbills on the street. In 1944 the Court did uphold statutes that limited the time children could spend each day selling religious literature in Prince v. Massachusetts.

The principle of law developed in the Jehovah’s Witnesses cases was expressed by Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opinion in Barnette, “If there is any star in the constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

Further Reading

  • Newton, Merlin Owen. Armed with the Constitution: Jehovah’s Witnesses in Alabama and the U.S. Supreme Court, 1939-1946. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
  • Stevens, Leonard A. Salute! The Case of the Bible vs. the Flag. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973.

Cantwell v. Connecticut

Lovell v. City of Griffin

Minersville School District v. Gobitis

Murdock v. Pennsylvania

Prior restraint

Religion, freedom of

Time, place, and manner regulations

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette