Episode 16 of the Constitutional podcast [or transcript]: ‘The 1st Amendment’ Story: How JW's powerfully transformed 1st Amendment law

by AndersonsInfo 4 Replies latest jw friends

  • AndersonsInfo


    Episode 16 of the Constitutional podcast: ‘The First Amendment’

    By Lillian Cunningham

    January 29, 2018

    In the summer of 1942, two law professors at the University of Pennsylvania penned a prescient article in the Bill of Rights Review. It opened this way:

    “Seldom, if ever, in the past, has one individual or group been able to shape the course, over a period of time, of any phase of our vast body of constitutional law. But it can happen, and it has happened here. The group is Jehovah's Witnesses."

    When professors John Mulder and Marvin Comisky wrote this piece, Jehovah's Witness, a persecuted but also assertive religious minority in America at the time, had already brought several First Amendment cases before the Supreme Court. But some of its greatest victories were still ahead—victories like the decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which the court ruled in the group's favor that compelling students to say the Pledge of Allegiance and salute the flag violated their rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

    By the end of World War II, Jehovah's Witnesses would argue nearly two dozen First Amendment cases at the Supreme Court. Their body of litigation would pressure the court to better define, and elevate, the role of personal liberty protections in American law.

    As Sarah Baringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania puts it: Jehovah's Witnesses "brought into existence a new constitutional world."

    In the penultimate episode of the Constitutional podcast, we examine the fascinating story of how this marginalized group was able to so powerfully transform First Amendment law. Gordon is a special guest on the episode alongside Julie Silverbrook, executive director of the Constitutional Sources Project.

    READ MORE: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2018/01/29/episode-16-of-the-constitutional-podcast-the-first-amendment/?utm_term=.9d8940ba6280


    The discussion is in the form of a podcast, but a written transcript is included.

    Do you know the history of JW's role in forcing the Supreme Court to define and to ultimately strengthen the role of the First Amendment in the U.S.? If you don't read on. Yes, by the actions taken by JW's in the 1930s and 40's, the civil liberties of all U.S. citizens were strengthened. But this group, as the article pointed out, were not religiously tolerant:

    "The Cantwell decision came out first and--Covington did it! He won the first major First Amendment victory at the Supreme Court for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    "GORDON: And this opinion was widely heralded actually by religious liberals. It was thought that this would be a protection for religious diversity, even though the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves were not religiously tolerant. So it was a question of tolerating the intolerant--and was quite a leap for the constitutional law of religion."


    Below, find an interesting excerpt from the transcript:

    GORDON: I would have loved to hear that lawyer Hayden Covington because apparently, he talked like a machine gun. He just jumped up and down and lectured the court, looking daggers at Justice Murphy who was Catholic. It just must have been incredible.

    When he confronted the Supreme Court, both Judge Rutherford and Hayden Covington used to talk down to the justices. They would say things like: “You know you don't understand. We're trying to educate you in the truth, which is God's law, and nothing you say can be held any higher than God's law.” So they really were deeply, deeply confrontational. They also had support from a number of religious liberals across the country and within the ACLU. The ACLU gave legal sophistication--if I could put it that way--to some of the more raw arguments made by the Witnesses themselves, including Rutherford and Covington.


    GORDON: And this opinion was widely heralded actually by religious liberals. It was thought that this would be a protection for religious diversity, even though the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves were not religiously tolerant. So it was a question of tolerating the intolerant--and was quite a leap for the constitutional law of religion.


    Covington also, two decades later, would become the lawyer defending boxer Muhammad Ali during the Vietnam War, when Ali refused to register for the draft on religious grounds. Covington died in 1978.

  • jp1692

    It is tragically ironic that the JW religious organization fought the US government for, and generally won, free speech rights only to forbid them among their own membership.

  • Ding
    And here I thought the WT didn't involve itself in the world and its affairs...
  • TerryWalstrom
    Below is a Washington Post article on 1st Amendment Rights
    and how Jehovah's Witnesses are champions of our Freedoms.
    What follows is MY RESPONSE to that article.

    Jehovah's Witness legal tactics in ‘Defending First Amendment Rights’
    was predicated upon a fraudulent premise of authority.

    Beginning in 1929, Watchtower President J.F.Rutherford unilaterally changed the historically accepted interpretation of Romans 13: 1,2.
    This verse had, for over 2,000 years, been taken at face value; to wit: obedience to the government was incumbent upon Christians because it was God who had appointed them in their authority. In the Watchtower magazine, Judge Rutherford reversed the interpretation summarily! ("The Higher Powers", Watch Tower, June 1929, pages 163-169, 179-185)

    The official history of Jehovah's Witnesses, JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES IN THE DIVINE PURPOSE, says about this change:

    " There were many false doctrines and practices that had not yet been cleaned out of the organization. Not all of them were recognized at once, but gradually over the years that followed it became evident to what extent the brothers had been in Babylonish captivity at that time. With considerable misunderstanding they had accepted earthly political governments as the "superior authorities" that God had ordained according to Romans 13: 1; and as a result, the Witnesses had been held in fear of man, particularly the civil rulers ."

    (Chapter 14, Par. 1) As you can see, even in 1959, Jehovah's Witnesses were still convinced the governmental and civil authorities were not to be submitted to, nor feared.

    Why bother with this old set of facts?

    During the Nazi era, Rutherford instructed German Bible Students to ignore Hitler's curtailment of public distribution of printed materials.
    From the year 1922, the German branch of the Bible Students (called Earnest Bible Students) had been banned for their door-to-door peddling and preaching in the streets. 5,000 arrests were made. By 1932, charges were still pending in 2,300 cases.

    Rutherford insisted German Witnesses hold a high profile and engage in banned public preaching campaigns leading to their arrest. Watchtower articles practically encouraged martyrdom.

    In the November 1, 1933, issue, printed a month later in German, Rutherford wrote:
    “Some will say: ‘If in the face of so much persecution and opposition we continue to go out amongst the people and publicly tell these truths, then I fear we may be killed.’
    That is true, and probably many of the faithful will be killed because they continue to faithfully proclaim the truth which they have learned in the secret place of the Most High god.” (Watchtower, November 1, 1933. p. 328)

    Additionally, in his Historical Dictionary of Jehovah's Witnesses, page 73, by George D. Chryssides states:

    "Of the 25,000 Witnesses and Earnest Bible Students in Germany, 13,400 spent at least some time serving prison sentences. According to Gestapo files, more than half recanted."

    13,400 German Witnesses spent time in prisons, often for years. 2,000 died. 270 were executed. (History of the Holocaust: A Handbook and Dictionary, pp. 218, 239, 266, 448, by Abraham J. Edelheit and Hershel Edelheit (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994)

    Why did this happen? Because the President of the Watchtower had reversed the traditional Christian understanding of Romans 13: 1,2 and substituted his own authority in its place.

    Jehovah's Witness legal tactics in ‘Defending First Amendment Rights’
    was predicated upon a fraudulent premise of authority.

    I'll make one further point in support of this thesis
    On November 23, 1954, in Scotland, Douglas Walsh was selected to be a test case regarding conscripted Jehovah's Witnesses. In the course of this trial, Vice-president Frederick Franz, and attorney Hayden C. Covington testified under oath. Within the questioning and testimony, a definitive statement was made, to wit: Jehovah's Witnesses are required, upon penalty of disfellowship (excommunication), to accept, believe, and carry out as though true, teachings which they personally do not conscientiously accept as legitimate, even if those teachings are later changed, nullifying the original 'truth'. (Transcript of trial: https://archive.org/details/WalshTrial)

    I would argue the actions of Jehovah's Witnesses against their own interests, and the interests of their local community, as well as nationally, were coerced by fear of excommunication in extremis, or at least insidiously coaxed into their beliefs through loyalty and disinformation.

    What is my interest in all of this?
    I served time in Federal prison from 1967-69 as a 'neutral' Jehovah's Witness as a result of a conviction for violation of the Universal Military Training and Service Act.
    I was privately counseled by my congregation leaders not to accept alternative civilian service. I was further counseled not to reveal I had been influenced in any way by other than my own conscience. This same deliberately invisible influence was carried out as coordinated policy nationwide.
    During the Vietnam war, 5,000 draft-age men turned in their draft cards rather than be conscripted. These were protests. 200,000 men were accused by the Federal Government of being Draft Offenders. 25,000 were indicted. Out of the 25,000, only 8,750 were convicted. Out of the 8,750 who were convicted, only 4,000 were imprisoned. Most of these, with some exceptions, were young men--Jehovah's Witnesses, like myself, who surrendered our loyalty to an organization and its leaders claiming to speak on behalf of the only true God.

    Five years before my appearance before a draft board, the Watchtower Society had quietly and unceremoniously changed the official interpretation of Romans 13: 1,2 rather quietly, flip-flopping back to the traditional plain reading Christendom had held for two thousand years!

    In fact, JW texts I was operating from had not been updated to include this change. I found out the hard way!
    The Watchtower headquarters would not provide me with a membership card nor a letter attesting to my ministerial status. I later found out this was only provided in special cases where a "special Pioneer" was involved who spent 100 to 150 hours monthly knocking doors.
    I had the legal right to serve alternate service working in a hospital--had it not been for the private counsel of my JW elders in strict accord with their covert (by this time) policies on Christian neutrality.
    This policy too, like the previous Romans 13: 1, 2 policy, reversed many years later. Apparently, the malleable nature of Watchtower ‘truth’ repudiates its value as the divine mind channeled by an Almighty.

    First Amendment champions? I think not!

    This religion is fraudulent in premise and has a historical track record of trampling on human rights.

    (See: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/nov/28/jehovahs-witnesses-did-not-protect-children-from-abuse-inquiry-finds)

  • Angelico


    many thanks for the info ...to keep.

    Terry: Fine answer and quotes. To keep.

    By the way the Society's Governing Body also played with the total number

    of "Bible Students" imprisoned and eventually killed!

    It has to be seen to ...believe (from their own publications.

    Dishonesty and deliberate withholding of the real facts.



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