1938 April 26

Cantwell Family Arrested; Case Establishes Free Exercise of Religion

 

Jehovah’s Witness members Newton Cantwell and his sons, Jesse and Russell, were arrested in New Haven, Connecticut, and charged on this day with breach of the peace. They were later convicted. The Cassius Street neighborhood was 90 percent Catholic, and people took offense at the anti-Catholic propaganda the Cantwells played on a portable record player. The Supreme Court overturned their convictions in Cantwell v. Connecticut, May 20, 1940, holding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

This case marked the incorporation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, making it applicable to the states. The process of selective incorporation of parts of the Bill of Rights began with the case of Gitlow v. New York on June 8, 1925.

The Court: “In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.”

Read: Shawn Peters, Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (2000)

Learn more about the Free Exercise of Religion: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/category/religion

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