Legally Protecting the Good News
AS LONG AS man has been constructing cities, he has been building walls. Especially in bygone days, these fortifications were a protection. From atop this barrier, defenders could fight to protect the walls from being breached or undermined by attackers. Not only did the inhabitants of the city find protection but often those dwelling in the surrounding towns also found refuge within the walls.—2 Samuel 11:20-24; Isaiah 25:12.
Similarly, Jehovah’s Witnesses have built a wall—a legal wall—of protection. This wall has not been erected to isolate the Witnesses from the rest of society, for Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for being gregarious, outgoing people. Rather, it fortifies legal guarantees of basic freedoms for all people. At the same time, it protects the Witnesses’ legal rights so that they can freely carry out their worship. (Compare Matthew 5:14-16.) This wall safeguards their way of worship and their right to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom. What is this wall, and how has it been built?
Building a Legal Wall of Protection
Although Jehovah’s Witnesses enjoy religious freedom in most lands, in some countries they have been the object of unjustified attack. When their freedom to worship by assembling together or by preaching from house to house has been challenged, they have pursued matters legally. Legal cases involving the Witnesses have numbered in the thousands earth wide.* Not all have been won. But when lower courts have ruled against them, they have often appealed to higher courts. With what result?
Over the decades of the 20th century, legal victories in many lands have established reliable precedents that Jehovah’s Witnesses have appealed to in subsequent cases. Like the bricks or stones making up a wall, these favorable decisions constitute a legal wall of protection. From atop this wall of precedent, the Witnesses have continued to fight for the religious freedom to carry out their worship.
Consider, as an example, the case of Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which was decided by the United States Supreme Court on May 3, 1943. The question raised in the case was this: Should Jehovah’s Witnesses have to obtain a commercial peddling license for distributing their religious literature? Jehovah’s Witnesses maintained that they should not be required to do so. Their preaching work is not—and never has been—commercial. Their objective is, not to make money, but to preach the good news. (Matthew 10:8; 2 Corinthians 2:17) In the Murdock decision, the Court agreed with the Witnesses, holding that any requirement of a payment of a license tax as a precondition to distributing religious literature is unconstitutional.* This decision set an important precedent, and the Witnesses have successfully appealed to it as authority in numerous cases since then. The Murdock decision has proved to be a sturdy brick in the legal wall of protection.
Such cases have done much to protect religious freedom for all people. Regarding the contribution made by the Witnesses to the defense of civil rights in the United States, the University of Cincinnati Law Review said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a profound impact on the evolution of constitutional law, particularly by expanding the parameters of the protection for speech and religion.”
Strengthening the Wall
With each legal victory, the wall gets stronger. Consider a few of the decisions in the 1990’s that have benefited Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as all other lovers of freedom, the world over.
Greece. On May 25, 1993, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the right of a Greek citizen to teach his religious beliefs to others. The case involved Minos Kokkinakis, then 84 years old. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Kokkinakis had been arrested more than 60 times since 1938, had been made to appear 18 times before Greek courts, and had spent more than six years in prison. He had been convicted largely under a 1930’s Greek law that prohibits proselytism—a law that was responsible for nearly 20,000 arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses from 1938 to 1992. The European Court ruled that the Greek government had violated the religious freedom of Kokkinakis and awarded him damages in the amount of $14,400. In its decision, the Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses are indeed a “known religion.”—See The Watchtower of September 1, 1993, pages 27-31.
Mexico. On July 16, 1992, a big step in the defense of religious freedom was taken in Mexico. On that date the Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship was enacted. Through this law, a religious group can receive legal status as a religious institution by obtaining the required registry. Previously, Jehovah’s Witnesses, like other religions in the country, existed de facto but had no legal status. On April 13, 1993, the Witnesses applied for registration. Happily, on May 7, 1993, they became legally registered as La Torre del Vigía, A. R., and Los Testigos de Jehová en México, A. R., both of which are religious associations.—See Awake!, July 22, 1994, pages 12-14.
Brazil. In November 1990, Brazil’s National Institute of Social Security (INSS) notified the branch office of the Watch Tower Society that volunteer ministers at Bethel (the name of branch facilities of Jehovah’s Witnesses) would no longer be viewed as religious ministers and would therefore come under Brazil’s labor laws. The Witnesses appealed the decision. On June 7, 1996, the Judicial Advisory of the Office of the Attorney General in Brasília issued a decision upholding the position of ministers at Bethel as members of a legitimate religious order, not as secular employees.
Japan. On March 8, 1996, the Supreme Court of Japan handed down a decision on the issue of education and freedom of religion—to the benefit of everyone in Japan. The court unanimously ruled that Kobe Municipal Industrial Technical College violated the law by expelling Kunihito Kobayashi for his refusal to participate in martial arts training. This ruling marks the first time that the Supreme Court has handed down a decision based on religious freedom guaranteed by the Japan Constitution. Following his Bible-trained conscience, this young Witness felt that these drills were not in harmony with such Bible principles as the one found at Isaiah 2:4, which says: “They will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.” The Court’s decision established a precedent for future cases.—See The Watchtower, November 1, 1996, pages 19-21.
On February 9, 1998, the Tokyo High Court handed down another landmark decision upholding the right of a Witness named Misae Takeda to refuse medical treatment that is not in harmony with the Bible’s command to ‘abstain from blood.’ (Acts 15:28, 29) This case has been appealed to the Supreme Court, and it remains to be seen if the High Court’s decision will be upheld.
Philippines. In a decision handed down on March 1, 1993, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a case involving Witness youths who were expelled from school because they respectfully declined to salute the flag.
Each favorable court ruling is like an added stone or brick strengthening the legal wall that protects the rights not only of Jehovah’s Witnesses but of all people.
Safeguarding the Wall
Jehovah’s Witnesses are legally registered in 153 lands, rightfully enjoying many freedoms, as do other recognized religions. After decades of persecution and ban in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Jehovah’s Witnesses are now legally recognized in such countries as Albania, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, and Slovakia. However, in certain lands today, including in some Western European countries that have long-established judicial systems, the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses are being seriously challenged or denied. Opposers are actively trying to ‘frame trouble by decree’ against the Witnesses. (Psalm 94:20) How do these respond?*
Jehovah’s Witnesses want to cooperate with all governments, but they also want to have the legal freedom to carry out their worship. It is their firm conviction that any laws or court decisions that would prohibit them from obeying God’s commands—including the command to preach the good news—are invalid. (Mark 13:10) If amicable agreements cannot be reached, Jehovah’s Witnesses will take the offensive in the legal arena, pursuing all appellate measures necessary to gain legal protection for their God-given right to carry out their worship. Jehovah’s Witnesses have complete confidence in God’s promise: “Any weapon whatever that will be formed against you will have no success.”—Isaiah 54:17.
For a detailed discussion of the legal record of Jehovah’s Witnesses, please see chapter 30 of the book Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
In the Murdock decision, the Supreme Court reversed its own position in the case of Jones v. City of Opelika. In the Jones case, in 1942, the Supreme Court had upheld the decision of a lower court that had convicted Rosco Jones, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, of engaging in distribution of literature on the streets of Opelika, Alabama, without the payment of a license tax.
See the articles “Hated for Their Faith” and “Defending Our Faith,” on pages 8-18.
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Defending the Rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses
The persecution brought upon Jehovah’s Witnesses has resulted in their being haled before judges and government officials earth wide. (Luke 21:12, 13) Jehovah’s Witnesses have spared no effort in legally defending their rights. Court victories in many lands have helped to protect the legal freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including their right to:
◻ preach from house to house unfettered by the restraints imposed on commercial salesmen—Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, U.S. Supreme Court (1943); Kokkinakis v. Greece, European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) (1993).
◻ assemble freely for worship—Manoussakis and Others v. Greece, ECHR (1996).
◻ decide how they can conscientiously show respect for the national flag or emblem—West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, U.S. Supreme Court (1943); Supreme Court of the Philippines (1993); Supreme Court of India (1986).
◻ refuse military service that violates their Christian conscience—Georgiadis v. Greece, ECHR (1997).
◻ choose treatments and medicines that do not violate their conscience—Malette v. Shulman, Ontario, Canada, Appeal Court (1990); Watch Tower v. E.L.A., Superior Court, San Juan, Puerto Rico (1995); Fosmire v. Nicoleau, New York, U.S.A., Court of Appeals (1990).
◻ raise their children according to their Bible-based beliefs even when these beliefs are challenged in child-custody disputes—St-Laurent v. Soucy, Supreme Court of Canada (1997); Hoffmann v. Austria, ECHR (1993).
◻ have and to operate legal agencies that receive the same exemptions from taxation that are accorded the agencies used by other recognized religions—People v. Haring, New York, U.S.A., Court of Appeals (1960).
◻ receive for those appointed to some form of special full-time service the same favorable tax treatment accorded to full-time religious workers of other religions—Brazil’s National Institute of Social Security, Brasília, (1996).
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Minos Kokkinakis with his wife
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The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck