Religious Meeting in Public Park No Union of Church and State
THE Supreme Court of Wisconsin, by a unanimous decision on December 5, 1950, strengthened the great wall of American civil liberties by sealing up one of its gaping holes. The court ruled that the County of Milwaukee could not prohibit meetings in the public parks by Jehovah’s witnesses because they were religious.
Milwaukee county passed a law completely forbidding all religious organizations from holding meetings or giving speeches on the public streets and in the parks of the county, on the ground that both state and federal constitutions prohibit union of church and state. It was argued, in support of this county law, that since parks were sustained at public expense the usage of them by religious organizations was an unlawful appropriation of public funds for religious purposes.
Notwithstanding this prohibitive law, Jehovah’s witnesses in Milwaukee went ahead and applied for permission to hold meetings in South Shore Park. The permit was denied, but the public Bible lecture was held anyway on July 31, 1949. David Carter, the ordained minister who delivered the Bible discourse to the assembly, was allowed to give his talk without interference. But at the conclusion the park police ordered him to report to the district attorney’s office the next day to answer a summons for an alleged violation of the law. There he was charged with disobeying the law prohibiting such meetings, and was therefore put on trial. Subsequent conviction and appeals finally brought the case to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
In due time, on November 10, 1950, counsel for Jehovah’s witnesses had the privilege of giving the state supreme court solid-rock arguments, and mortar too consisting of cohesive reasoning and judicial logic, with which the court might plug up this hole the enemy had blasted in the defenses of civil liberties. It was pointed out to the high tribunal that, while both the state and federal constitutions prohibit the establishment of a state religion, yet they do not exclude religions from enjoying certain benefits from the state. While churches may not be aided or supported by public funds, yet they have a constitutional right to hold meetings. Moreover, to deny a religious group the right to use the parks would be to discriminate against religious assemblies, and since no discrimination of that sort appears in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, none should be written into it at this late date. It was also emphasized that Jehovah’s witnesses had not monopolized the park or prevented others from using it too, nor did the meeting interfere with any other recreational activity going on in the park. Consequently, Jehovah’s witnesses as a religious organization had as much right to exercise freedom of speech and assembly in the public park as do political and commercial organizations.
Counsel for Jehovah’s witnesses informed this high court that the doctrine advocated by the antireligious county law was similar to the threat of Communism against all religions. In communistic countries all religion is curtailed. There, the most powerful as well as the insignificant religious organizations are completely barred from benefits of the state, such as tax exemption granted to the churches in this country. And to a very large extent communist countries deny religious groups civil guarantee of protection of their fundamental rights of assembly, worship and speech. Surely the courts of this democratic land cannot allow laws of that nature to creep in and choke out time-honored religious freedom!
If the argument supporting the Milwaukee county law is correct, the court was informed, then criminal gamblers and slot machine operators would have the constitutional right to hold meetings in the parks, while law-abiding Christian ministers endeavoring to improve the morality of the community would be prohibited from using the same parks. If the extreme contention that the doctrine of separation of church and state bars Jehovah’s witnesses from the parks is accepted, then the same twisted reasoning would make unconstitutional and void all exemptions from taxation now granted the churches. Such interpretation would certainly mean the death toll to all religions, for the burden of taxation would be too great.
Wisconsin’s highest court saw the tragic consequences to religious freedom if it accepted the doctrine of this Milwaukee county law. Hence it unanimously accepted the argument advanced by Jehovah’s witnesses and handed down a judgment that will do much to protect the religious liberties of all Americans. It was a most timely decision too, for totalitarian forces are steadily increasing their pressure against the fortresses of freedom.
Briefly consider the solid truths and brilliant logic contained in this very important decision. “When, in Art. I, sec. 3, the Wisconsin Constitution guarantees the right of free speech it does not except or restrict speech on the subject of religion.” If it did it would clash with the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and would therefore be null and void. “Speech on religious topics is just as free . . . as speech on other subjects.” It is granted that civil authorities have the right, and may, in “the interests of public order, safety, and equitable sharing of facilities, exercise reasonable control over when, where and under what conditions public meetings may be held on public property”. However, “the Milwaukee county ordinance purports not to regulate but to prohibit speech in public parks on political as well as religious subjects.” Hence, “to deny to the people all use of the people’s property for the public discussion of specified subjects is an unconstitutional interference of rights expressly guaranteed by both state and federal constitutions.” Consequently, the ordinance “is void, as in conflict with both constitutions, and the conviction under it is likewise void and must be set aside”. This was the unanimous and happy conclusion of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.
There are other cases against Jehovah’s witnesses in other parts of the country where the same type of ordinance prohibiting religious park meetings has been framed and applied. It is therefore hoped that, by the undeserved kindness and guiding power of Jehovah, the courts in those states will wisely follow the Supreme Court of Wisconsin and plug up similar breaches in the democratic walls.