1940 May 20

Free Exercise of Religion Affirmed: “Cantwell v. Connecticut”


The Supreme Court on this day unanimously reversed the convictions of members of the Cantwell family in Cantwell v. Connecticut, on the grounds that their activities were protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The decision marked the incorporation of the Free Exercise Clause into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, making it applicable to the states. The decision marked another step in the process of “selective incorporation” of provisions of the Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment. (On incorporation, see the landmark Gitlow v. New York decision on June 8, 1925.)

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were arguably the most hated religious group in America. Their attempts to spread their message involved massive door-to-door campaigns and playing recorded messages on portable record players. Not only did many people find their tactics obnoxious, but their message contained hateful comments about the Roman Catholic Church. Local communities tried to restrict their activities with ordinances that limited freedom of speech and assembly. On April 26, 1938, members of the Cantwells nearly provoked a fight by broadcasting their message in a heavily Catholic area of New Haven, Connecticut. The Cantwells were arrested and charged with failing to obtain a license for their activities and also for breach of the peace.

The case was one of many between the late 1930s and the early 1950s in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were instrumental in helping to force new First Amendment freedoms (see Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses, below).

Justice Owen Roberts: To condition the solicitation of aid for the perpetuation of religious views or systems upon a license, the grant of which rests in the exercise of a determination by state authority as to what is a religious cause, is to lay a forbidden burden upon the exercise of liberty protected by the Constitution.”

Watch the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2jCv-rrjqM

See a Jehovah’s Witnesses portable record player: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWDWEtKA_KUJuding

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

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