Court ruling again places Jehovah's Witnesses as 'patriotic citizens'
By SHAWN FRANCIS PETERS
Last Updated: July 20, 2002
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that an Ohio village could not require religious proselytizers and political canvassers to obtain a municipal permit before they took to the streets.
In an 8-1 decision, in the case of Watchtower Bible and Tract Society vs. Village of Stratton, the high court held that applying the village's licensing ordinance to such activities violated constitutional protections of free speech.
The most curious aspect of the Supreme Court's ruling in Stratton was a brief concurring opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia. Although Scalia agreed with the court's judgment, he took issue with a few aspects of Justice John Paul Stevens' majority opinion.
Scalia was astonished by Stevens' suggestion that the appellants in the Stratton case, a group of Jehovah's Witnesses, were "patriotic citizens" who might prefer "silence to speech licensed by a petty official."
With his customary acerbity, Scalia scoffed at the notion that the Witnesses and other groups who resisted permit requirements could be termed patriotic, calling it nothing less than a "fairy-tale."
He also complained, "If our free-speech jurisprudence is to be determined by the predicted behavior of such crackpots, we are in a sorry state indeed."
Scalia should know better than to characterize the Jehovah's Witnesses so crudely. Few religious or secular groups have done more to bolster legal protections for civil liberties than these purported "crackpots."
By litigating hundreds of cases from the 1930s to the present day, the Witnesses have prompted courts at all levels, including Scalia's very own U.S. Supreme Court, to establish or reinforce judicial safeguards shielding a number of civil liberties, including religious liberty and free speech. Their efforts in the courts have benefited Americans of all faiths.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' influence on constitutional law was especially profound during the World War II era. From 1938 to 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down 23 opinions covering 39 Witness-related cases, including such landmarks as Cantwell vs. Connecticut (which strengthened protections for religious liberty) and West Virginia vs. Barnette (freedom of conscience and free speech).
The Witness cases from that era affected the evolution of American law by helping to bring minority and individual rights - areas long overlooked by the courts - out of the shadows and into the forefront of constitutional jurisprudence. These groundbreaking cases helped to set the stage for the rights revolution spearheaded by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1960s.
Scalia's attempt to impugn the patriotism of the Jehovah's Witnesses is particularly disturbing because it harkens back to one of the darkest moments in the Supreme Court's history - its notorious ruling in the case of Minersville School District vs. Gobitis.
In Gobitis, decided in 1940, the high court ruled that Jehovah's Witness schoolchildren could not claim a religious exemption to a regulation mandating participation in flag-salute exercises at public schools. (The Witnesses believe that saluting the flag is a form of idolatry prohibited by the Scriptures.)
The court's ruling in Gobitis was widely perceived as an indictment of the Witnesses' patriotism. Summing up the public's assessment of the flag-salute decision, one southern sheriff claimed, "They're traitors - the Supreme Court says so."
Such sentiments were so widespread that the Witnesses were forced to endure perhaps the worst outbreak of religious persecution seen in the United States in the 20th century. For several grim years in the early and mid-1940s, vigilantes in nearly every state of the union brutalized members of their faith as they attempted to distribute literature in public.
To make matters even worse for the Jehovah's Witnesses, their persecution during the early and mid-1940s was not limited to physical punishment meted out in vigilante attacks. Authorities in dozens of states and communities, for instance, enacted new laws or applied existing ones to suppress their First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech and assembly. (As the Supreme Court also recently acknowledged, these measures were not unlike the statute at issue in the Stratton case.)
What's more, employers and co-workers often discriminated against Witnesses in their workplaces. Expulsions of Witness pupils from public schools became so widespread that members of the faith in dozens of communities were forced to operate their own makeshift schools.
Witness parents were charged with neglect or disorderly conduct following the flag-salute expulsions of their children, and some faced the prospect of sizable prison terms for their alleged crimes. And young members of the faith who registered for the military draft faced rampant discrimination, as well.
It seems unlikely that Scalia's uncharitable comments regarding the Jehovah's Witnesses - buried deep in a Supreme Court decision that ultimately validated their legal claims - will ignite such a fury. They are disturbing nonetheless in that they betray an intolerance of the millions of Americans who do not adhere to mainstream religious faiths.
In a land founded by religious dissenters, these "crackpots," as Scalia terms them, deserve better.
Shawn Francis Peters is a Madison writer.
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 21, 2002.