Watch Tower Society Defends the Good News in the Courts
THE preaching of the good news has resulted in opposition today as in the days of the apostles. As far back as 1889, and again in 1910, the Society found it necessary to advise the Bible Students of their legal right to distribute Bible literature, while at the same time it encouraged them to be considerate of others.
During World War I, opposition to the activities of the Bible Students led to the banning of the Watch Tower Society’s affiliate society in Canada, and in the United States to the imprisoning on false charges of eight prominent co-workers of the Pennsylvania Watch Tower Society, including its president, Joseph F. Rutherford. Persistent legal action on the part of associates outside of prison eventually led to their release and to their complete exoneration from all charges.
During the 1930’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses mushroomed again in the United States, especially arising from laws requiring the compulsory flag salute by children in schools, and also laws that would tax, restrict or prohibit outright the preaching of the Bible and the distributing of Bible literature on the streets and from house to house. In 1933 throughout the United States there were 268 arrests, but by 1936 the annual number of arrests had grown to 1,149.
In addition, from 1940 to 1944 there were 2,500 incidents of mob action in 44 states, requiring legal efforts to have offenders punished and thereby restrained from their lawlessness.
If Jehovah’s Witnesses had been required to fight for their rights on an individual local basis alone, they would have found it difficult or impossible to get qualified legal assistance. Even when available it was often prohibitively expensive. The president of the Society, Joseph F. Rutherford, a lawyer himself, had the Society set up a legal office to provide assistance and funds, and to coordinate the efforts of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the fight for their constitutional rights through the courts.
An effort was made to get the cases out of the lower courts and into higher courts so that a bulwark of favorable decisions could be established that would stem this interference with our work. So it was decided that these laws would be challenged, either because they were being applied contrary to the constitution or because they were in themselves unconstitutional. If the lower courts ruled against them, the Witnesses would pay no fines but would go to jail instead. They would keep appealing the cases as high up in the court system as possible in order to get precedent decisions.
The Society’s legal office, in cooperation with lawyers around the country, took up the fight for freedom of speech and freedom of worship. All congregations were supplied with available court decisions as well as legal advice on how to deal with police officers, how to plead and how to conduct themselves in court. These matters were rehearsed over and over again at Service Meetings. Some local officials would even complain that the Witnesses knew more about the law than they themselves did.
From 1935 to 1950 there were some 10,000 arrests and 190 cases taken up on appeal. There were 28 different kinds of laws in hundreds of towns that were rendered invalid, and a total of 150 state supreme court cases were won. By 1955 the United States Supreme Court had decided 50 cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, resulting in 23 favorable decisions involving 37 cases and 10 unfavorable decisions involving 13 cases. On two occasions the Supreme Court reversed itself in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
While attention has been given to the significance of the battle in the courts, acknowledgment must be given to the front-line fighters, all those of Jehovah’s Witnesses who continued to exercise their rights of freedom of religion and freedom of the press, who put up with being arrested and spending time in the courts and in jails so that these issues could be tested in the higher courts.
The Society’s legal office continues to coordinate activities around the country in defense of the constitutional right to preach the good news from house to house. In addition, there have been many cases involving rights to build Kingdom Halls and Assembly Halls.
Through the years the Society’s legal office has also rendered assistance to many other branches around the world, resulting in the lifting of bans and also legally establishing the work of preaching. At present there are about 40 countries where the Watch Tower Society’s activities are restricted and the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses has been driven underground, but the preaching of the good news continues.
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“Through almost constant litigation [Jehovah’s Witnesses have] made possible an ever-increasing list of precedents concerning the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to freedom of speech and religion . . . And so, a body of precedent crystallizing rules regarding the limits of encroachments by the States has been developing. To this development Jehovah’s Witnesses have contributed the most, both in quantity and in significance.”—Bill of Rights Review, The American Bar Association, 1942
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“It is plain that present constitutional guarantees of personal liberty, as authoritatively interpreted by the United States Supreme Court, are far broader than they were before the spring of 1938; and that most of this enlargement is to be found in the thirty-one Jehovah’s Witnesses cases (sixteen deciding opinions) of which Lovell v. City of Griffin was the first.”—Judge E. F. Waite, Minnesota Law Review, 1944
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“A state may not impose a charge for the enjoyment of a right granted by the federal constitution. . . . The power to impose a license tax on the exercise of these freedoms is indeed as potent as the power of censorship which this Court has repeatedly struck down.”—U.S. Supreme Court, Murdock v. Pennsylvania
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“Freedom to distribute information to every citizen wherever he desires to receive it is so clearly vital to the preservation of a free society that, putting aside reasonable police and health regulations of time and manner of distribution, it must be fully preserved.”—U.S. Supreme Court, Martin v. City of Struthers
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Some legal advice provided for Jehovah’s Witnesses