1/27/2011 • American History Jehovah’s Witnesses were unlikely champions of religious freedom.One of the most momentous cases on the Supreme Court docket as war raged globally in 1943 was about a single sentence said aloud by schoolchildren every day. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious sect renowned for descending en masse on small towns or city neighborhoods and calling on members of other faiths to “awake” and escape the snare of the devil and his minions, felt otherwise.The Witness sect was founded in the 1870s, and caused a stir when the founder, Charles Taze Russell, a haberdasher in Pittsburgh, predicted the world would come to an end in 1914.
But their persistence in fighting in the courts for their beliefs had a dramatic impact on constitutional law.
Barnette is just one of several major Supreme Court decisions involving freedom of religion, speech, assembly and conscience that arose from clashes between Jehovah’s Witnesses and government authorities.
The Court rejected the Witnesses’ claim, holding that the secular interests of the school district in fostering patriotism were paramount.
In the majority opinion, written during the same month that France fell to the Nazis, Felix Frankfurter wrote: “National unity is the basis of national security.” The plaintiffs, said Frankfurter, were free to “fight out the wise use of legislative authority in the forum of public opinion and before legislative assemblies.” In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Harlan Stone argued that “constitutional guarantees or personal liberty are not always absolutes…but it is a long step, and one which I am unwilling to take, that government may, as a supposed educational measure…compel public affirmations which violate their public conscience.” Further, said Stone, the prospect of help for this “small and helpless minority” by the political process was so remote that Frankfurter had effectively “surrendered…the liberty of small minorities to the popular will.” Public reaction to Gobitis bordered on hysteria, colored by the hotly debated prospect of American participation in the war in Europe.
This “blood guilt” propelled in-your-face proselytizing by Witnesses in various communities on street corners and in door-to-door visits.