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.
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,
Perhaps the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ biggest setback was the 1940 ruling in Minersville School District v. Gobitis
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.”
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
Religion, freedom of
Time, place, and manner regulations
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette