Kingdom Preachers Take Their Case to Court

Kingdom Preachers Take Their Case to Court


As Jesus foretold, his people face legal opposition to their preaching work

1, 2. (a) The religious leaders succeeded in doing what to the preaching work, but how did the apostles react? (b) Why did the apostles refuse to obey the ban on preaching?

IT IS shortly after Pentecost 33 C.E. The Christian congregation in Jerusalem is only a few weeks old. Clearly, Satan sees this as the right time for action. Before the congregation grows strong, he wants to stamp it out. Quickly, Satan maneuvers events in such a way that the religious leaders ban the Kingdom-preaching work. The apostles, however, courageously preach on, and many men and women become “believers in the Lord.”​—Acts 4:18, 33; 5:14.

The apostles rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy to be dishonored in behalf of his name”

2 Enraged, the opposers strike again​—this time by jailing all the apostles. However, during the night, Jehovah’s angel opens the prison doors, and by daybreak the apostles are back out preaching! Again they are arrested and taken before the rulers, who accuse the apostles of breaking the decree against preaching. In response, the apostles boldly declare: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” The rulers are so infuriated that they want to “do away” with the apostles. But at that critical moment, the esteemed Law teacher Gamaliel speaks up, warning the rulers: “Be careful . . . Do not meddle with these men, but let them alone.” Surprisingly, the rulers take his advice and let the apostles go. What do those faithful men do? Undaunted, they continue “without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ, Jesus.”​—Acts 5:17-21, 27-42; Prov. 21:1, 30.

3, 4. (a) What time-tested method has Satan used to attack God’s people? (b) What will we consider in this chapter and the following two?

3 That court case back in 33 C.E. was the first occurrence of official opposition to the Christian congregation, but by far not the last. (Acts 4:5-8; 16:20; 17:6, 7) In our time, Satan still stirs up opposers of true worship to incite the authorities to place bans on our preaching work. Opposers have leveled a variety of charges against God’s people. One is that we are disturbers of public order​—troublemakers. Another is that we are seditionists; still another, that we are commercial salesmen​—peddlers. At the appropriate times, our brothers have gone to court to prove such accusations to be false. What has been the result of these cases? How do court verdicts delivered decades ago affect you personally today? Let us examine a few court cases to see in what ways they have helped “in the defending and legally establishing of the good news.”​—Phil. 1:7.

4 In this chapter we will focus on how we have defended our right to have the freedom to preach. The following two chapters will examine some of the legal battles that we have fought in our struggle to remain no part of the world and live by Kingdom standards.

Troublemakers​—Or Loyal Advocates of God’s Kingdom?

5. In the late 1930’s, why were Kingdom preachers arrested, and what action was considered by those taking the lead?

5 In the late 1930’s, cities and states throughout the United States of America sought to force Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain some form of legal permit or license in order to engage in their ministry. But our brothers did not apply for licenses. A license can be revoked, and they believed that no government had the authority to interfere with Jesus’ command for Christians to preach the Kingdom message. (Mark 13:10) Consequently, hundreds of Kingdom preachers were arrested. In response, those taking the lead in the organization considered going to court. They hoped to demonstrate that the State had imposed unlawful restrictions on the Witnesses’ right to practice their religion freely. And in 1938 an incident occurred that led to a landmark court case. What happened?

6, 7. What happened to the Cantwell family?

6 On Tuesday morning, April 26, 1938, Newton Cantwell, aged 60; his wife, Esther; and their sons Henry, Russell, and Jesse​—all five of them special pioneers—​set out for a day of preaching in the city of New Haven, Connecticut. Actually, they were prepared to be away for longer than a day. Why? They had already been arrested on several occasions, so they realized that they could be arrested again. Yet, that prospect did not dampen the desire of the Cantwells to preach the Kingdom message. They arrived in New Haven in two cars. Newton drove the family car loaded with Bible literature and portable phonographs, while 22-year-old Henry drove a sound car. Indeed, as anticipated, within hours they were stopped by the police.

7 First, Russell, aged 18, was arrested, and then Newton and Esther. From a distance, Jesse, aged 16, looked on as his parents and brother were led away by the police. Henry was preaching in another part of town, so young Jesse was left by himself. Still, he picked up his phonograph and continued preaching. Two Catholic men let Jesse play a record of Brother Rutherford’s lecture entitled “Enemies.” But as they listened to the lecture, the men got so angry that they wanted to strike Jesse. Calmly, Jesse walked away from them, but shortly thereafter, a policeman stopped him. So, Jesse too ended up in custody. The police did not charge Sister Cantwell, but they did charge Brother Cantwell and his sons. However, they were released on bail that same day.

8. Why did the court find Jesse Cantwell guilty of being a troublemaker?

8 A few months later, in September 1938, the Cantwell family appeared before the trial court in New Haven. Newton, Russell, and Jesse were convicted of soliciting donations without a license. Despite appeals to the Supreme Court of Connecticut, Jesse was found guilty of inciting a breach of peace​—of being a troublemaker. Why? Because the two Catholic men who had listened to the record testified in court that the lecture insulted their religion and provoked them. To challenge the convictions, the responsible brothers in our organization appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court​—the highest court of the land.

9, 10. (a) How did the U.S. Supreme Court rule in the case of the Cantwell family? (b) How do we still benefit from that ruling?

9 Starting on March 29, 1940, Chief Justice Charles E. Hughes and eight associate judges listened to the arguments presented by Brother Hayden Covington, a lawyer for Jehovah’s Witnesses. * When the attorney for the state of Connecticut presented his arguments in an effort to prove that the Witnesses were troublemakers, one justice asked: “Was it not true that the message that Christ Jesus proclaimed was unpopular in his day?” The state’s attorney replied: “It was, and, if I remember my Bible correctly, it also tells what happened to Jesus for proclaiming that message.” What a revealing statement! Unwittingly, the attorney grouped the Witnesses with Jesus and grouped the state with those who convicted him. On May 20, 1940, the Court unanimously ruled in favor of the Witnesses.

Hayden Covington (front, center), Glen How (left), and others leaving a courthouse after a legal victory

10 What was the significance of the Court’s ruling? It expanded protection of the right to the free exercise of religion so that no federal, state, or local government could lawfully limit religious freedom. Further, the Court found in Jesse’s conduct “no . . . menace to public peace and order.” Hence, the ruling clearly established that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not disturbers of public order. What a decisive legal victory for God’s servants! How do we still benefit from it? A lawyer who is a Witness notes: “The right to exercise our religion freely without fear of unfair restrictions allows us as Witnesses today to share a message of hope with others in the communities where we live.”

Seditionists​—Or Proclaimers of Truth?

Quebec’s Burning Hate for God and Christ and Freedom Is the Shame of All Canada

11. What campaign did our brothers in Canada carry out, and why?

11 During the 1940’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada faced fierce opposition. Hence, in 1946, to publicize the State’s disregard for the right to freedom of worship, our brothers there held a 16-day campaign in which they distributed a tract entitled Quebec’s Burning Hate for God and Christ and Freedom Is the Shame of All Canada. This four-page tract exposed in detail the clergy-instigated riots, police brutality, and mob violence committed against our brothers in the province of Quebec. “Lawless arrests of Jehovah’s witnesses continue,” stated the tract. “There are about 800 charges stacked up against Jehovah’s witnesses in Greater Montreal.”

12. (a) How did opposers react to the tract campaign? (b) Our brothers were charged with what crime? (See also footnote.)

12 Quebec’s Premier Maurice Duplessis, working hand in glove with Roman Catholic Cardinal Villeneuve, reacted to the tract by declaring a “war without mercy” against the Witnesses. The number of prosecutions quickly doubled from 800 to 1,600. “The police arrested us so many times that we lost count,” said a pioneer sister. Witnesses who were caught distributing the tract were charged with the crime of publishing “seditious libel.” *

13. Who were the first to be tried on charges of sedition, and how did the court rule?

13 In 1947, Brother Aimé Boucher and his daughters Gisèle, aged 18, and Lucille, aged 11, were the first to be tried in court on charges of sedition. They had distributed Quebec’s Burning Hate tracts near their farm in the hills south of Quebec City, but it was hard to picture them as lawless troublemakers. Brother Boucher was a humble and mild man who quietly tended his small farm and occasionally traveled into town by horse and buggy. Still, his family had endured some of the very abuses mentioned in the tract. The trial court judge, who hated Witnesses, refused to admit evidence that proved the Bouchers’ innocence. Instead, he accepted the prosecution’s position that the tract stirred up ill will and that thus the Bouchers should be found guilty. So the judge’s view boiled down to this: It is a crime to tell the truth! Aimé and Gisèle were convicted of seditious libel, and even young Lucille spent two days locked in jail. The brothers appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, the land’s highest court, which agreed to hear the case.

14. How did the brothers in Quebec react during the years of persecution?

14 Meanwhile, our courageous brothers and sisters in Quebec continued to preach the Kingdom message in the face of unrelenting and violent attacks​—often with outstanding results. During the four years after the start of the tract campaign in 1946, the number of Witnesses in Quebec increased from 300 to 1,000! *

15, 16. (a) How did the Supreme Court of Canada rule in the case of the Boucher family? (b) What effect did this victory have on our brothers and on others?

15 In June 1950, the full Supreme Court of Canada, made up of nine justices, heard the case of Aimé Boucher. Six months later, on December 18, 1950, the Court ruled in our favor. Why? Brother Glen How, a lawyer for the Witnesses, explained that the Court agreed with the argument presented by the defense that “sedition” requires incitement to violence or insurrection against government. The tract, however, “contained no such incitements and was therefore a lawful form of free speech.” Brother How added: “I saw firsthand how Jehovah gave the victory.” *

16 The Supreme Court’s decision was, indeed, a resounding victory for God’s Kingdom. It eliminated the basis for all the other 122 pending cases in which Witnesses in Quebec had been charged with seditious libel. Further, the Court’s ruling meant that citizens of Canada and the Commonwealth now had the freedom to voice their concerns over the manner of government. Moreover, this victory broke the back of Quebec’s Church-State attack on the liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses. *

Peddlers​—Or Zealous Heralds of God’s Kingdom?

17. How do some governments try to control our preaching activities?

17 Like the early Christians, Jehovah’s servants today “are not peddlers of the word of God.” (Read 2 Corinthians 2:17.) Still, some governments try to control our ministerial activities by means of laws that regulate commerce. Let us consider two of the court cases that ruled on the question of whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are peddlers or are ministers.

18, 19. How did authorities in Denmark try to restrain the preaching work?

18 Denmark. On October 1, 1932, a law took effect that made it illegal to sell printed material without a peddler’s license. Our brothers, however, did not apply for any license. The next day, five publishers spent the day preaching in Roskilde, a town some 20 miles (over 30 km) west of Copenhagen, the capital. At day’s end, one of the publishers, August Lehmann, was missing. He had been arrested for selling goods without a license.

19 On December 19, 1932, August Lehmann appeared in court. He testified that he had called on people to offer Bible literature, but he denied that he was peddling. The trial court agreed with him. It stated: “The defendant . . . is able to support himself financially, and [he] has not received any economic benefit nor had any intentions to receive such, but instead his activities have caused him financial loss.” Siding with the Witnesses, the court ruled that Lehmann’s activity could not “be characterized as trade.” The adversaries of God’s people, though, were determined to restrain the preaching work throughout the land. (Ps. 94:20) The public prosecutor appealed all the way to the country’s Supreme Court. How did our brothers respond?

20. How did the Supreme Court of Denmark rule, and what was our brothers’ reaction?

20 In the week leading up to the Supreme Court hearing, Witnesses throughout Denmark stepped up their preaching activities. On Tuesday, October 3, 1933, the Supreme Court announced its decision. It agreed with the lower court that August Lehmann had not broken the law. This ruling meant that the Witnesses could continue to preach freely. To express their gratitude to Jehovah for giving this legal victory, the brothers and sisters increased their preaching activities even more. Ever since that Court decision, our brothers in Denmark have been able to carry out their ministry without government interference.

Courageous Witnesses in Denmark in the 1930’s

21, 22. What was the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brother Murdock?

21 United States. On Sunday, February 25, 1940, pioneer Robert Murdock, Jr., and seven other Witnesses were arrested while preaching in Jeannette, a city near Pittsburgh, in the state of Pennsylvania. They were convicted of failing to buy a license to offer literature. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

22 On May 3, 1943, the Supreme Court announced its ruling, which came out in defense of the Witnesses. The Court objected to the requirement of obtaining a license because that imposed “a charge for the enjoyment of a right granted by the Federal Constitution.” The Court invalidated the city ordinance as “an abridgment of freedom of press and a restraint on the free exercise of religion.” In delivering the Court’s majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas stated that the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses “is more than preaching; it is more than distribution of religious literature. It is a combination of both.” He added: “This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate . . . as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits.”

23. Why are the court victories of 1943 important for us today?

23 This Supreme Court ruling constituted a major legal victory for God’s people. It affirmed what we truly are​—Christian ministers, not commercial salesmen. On that memorable day in 1943, Jehovah’s Witnesses won 12 of their 13 cases before the Supreme Court, including the Murdock case. These court decisions have served as a powerful precedent in more recent court cases in which our opposers have again challenged our right to preach the Kingdom message publicly and from house to house.

“We Must Obey God as Ruler Rather Than Men”

24. How do we react when a government bans our preaching work?

24 As Jehovah’s servants, we deeply appreciate it when governments grant us the legal right to preach the Kingdom message freely. However, when a government bans our preaching work, we simply adjust our methods, continuing our work in any way possible. Like the apostles, “we must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29; Matt. 28:19, 20) At the same time, we appeal to the courts to lift the ban on our activities. Consider two examples.

25, 26. What events in Nicaragua led to a Supreme Court case there, and what was the outcome?

25 Nicaragua. On November 19, 1952, missionary and branch servant Donovan Munsterman stepped into the Office of Immigration in Managua, the capital. He had been ordered to appear before Captain Arnoldo García, who headed the office. The captain told Donovan that all of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nicaragua were “prohibited to continue preaching their doctrines and promoting their religious activities.” When asked why, Captain García explained that the Witnesses did not have permission from the minister of government to perform their ministry and that they were accused of being communists. Who were our accusers? The Roman Catholic clergy.

Brothers in Nicaragua during the ban

26 Brother Munsterman immediately appealed to the Ministry of Government and Religions as well as to President Anastasio Somoza García, but to no avail. So the brothers adjusted their methods. They closed the Kingdom Hall, met in smaller groups, and stopped street witnessing, but they still preached the Kingdom message. At the same time, they filed a petition for injunction with the Supreme Court of Nicaragua, asking the Court to invalidate the ban. Newspapers widely reported the ban and the contents of the petition, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. What was the outcome? On June 19, 1953, the Supreme Court published its unanimous decision in favor of the Witnesses. The Court found that the ban violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, conscience, and manifestation of beliefs. It also ordered that relations between the government of Nicaragua and the Witnesses be restored to their former state.

27. Why were the people of Nicaragua amazed at the Court’s decision, and how did the brothers view this victory?

27 Nicaraguans were amazed that the Supreme Court had sided with the Witnesses. Until then, the influence of the clergy had been so strong that the Court avoided conflicts with them. Also, the power of government officials was so great that the Court seldom went against their decisions. Our brothers were confident that they received this victory because they had received protection from their King and had continued preaching.​—Acts 1:8.

28, 29. In the mid-1980’s, what turn of events took place in Zaire?

28 Zaire. In the mid-1980’s, there were about 35,000 Witnesses in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. To keep up with the steady growth of Kingdom activities, the branch was constructing new facilities. In December 1985, an international convention was held in the capital city, Kinshasa, and 32,000 delegates from many parts of the world filled the city’s stadium. But then, conditions for Jehovah’s servants began to change. What happened?

29 Brother Marcel Filteau, a missionary from Quebec, Canada, who had experienced the persecution of the Duplessis regime, served in Zaire at the time. He related what took place: “On March 12, 1986, the responsible brothers were handed a letter that declared the association of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Zaire illegal.” The ban was signed by the country’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

30. The Branch Committee needed to make what weighty decision, and what did they decide to do?

30 The next day the national radio announced: “We shall never again hear of Jehovah’s Witnesses in [Zaire].” Instant persecution followed. Kingdom Halls were destroyed, and our brothers were robbed, arrested, imprisoned, and beaten. Even Witness children were put in prison. On October 12, 1988, the government seized our organization’s belongings, and the Civil Guard, an army unit, occupied the branch property. The responsible brothers filed an appeal with President Mobutu, but they did not receive a reply. At that point, the Branch Committee had to make a weighty decision, “Shall we appeal to the Supreme Court, or shall we wait?” Timothy Holmes, who was a missionary and the country’s Branch Committee coordinator at the time, recalls, “We looked to Jehovah for wisdom and direction.” After prayerful deliberation, the committee felt that the time for legal action was not right. Instead, they focused on caring for the brotherhood and on finding ways to continue the preaching work.

“During the period of that litigation, we saw how Jehovah can change things”

31, 32. What remarkable decision did the Supreme Court of Zaire make, and what effect did it have on our brothers?

31 Several years passed. Pressure on the Witnesses lessened, and respect for human rights increased in the country. The Branch Committee concluded that the time had come to challenge the ban by appealing to the Supreme Court of Justice of Zaire. Remarkably, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Then, on January 8, 1993, nearly seven years after the presidential ban order, the Court ruled that the government’s action against the Witnesses had been unlawful, and the ban was lifted. Just think of what that meant! Putting their own lives at risk, the justices had annulled a decision of the country’s president! Says Brother Holmes, “During the period of that litigation, we saw how Jehovah can change things.” (Dan. 2:21) This victory fortified the faith of our brothers. They felt that the King, Jesus, had directed his people to know when and how to act.

Witnesses in the Democratic Republic of Congo rejoice over their freedom to worship Jehovah

32 With the ban lifted, the branch office was allowed to bring in missionaries, build new branch facilities, and import Bible literature. * What a joy it is for God’s servants worldwide to observe how Jehovah protects the spiritual welfare of his people!​—Isa. 52:10.

“Jehovah Is My Helper”

33. What do we learn from this brief review of a few court cases?

33 Our review of some legal battles proves that Jesus has lived up to his promise: “I will give you words and wisdom that all your opposers together will not be able to resist or dispute.” (Read Luke 21:12-15.) At times, Jehovah has evidently raised up modern-day Gamaliels to protect his people or has moved courageous judges and lawyers to stand up for justice. Jehovah has blunted the weapons of our opposers. (Read Isaiah 54:17.) Opposition cannot stop God’s work.

34. Why are our legal victories so remarkable, and what do they prove? (See also the box “ Noteworthy High Court Victories That Advanced Kingdom Preaching.”)

34 Why are our legal victories so remarkable? Consider this: Jehovah’s Witnesses are not prominent or influential. We do not vote, support political campaigns, or lobby politicians. Moreover, those of us drawn into high court cases generally are considered “uneducated and ordinary.” (Acts 4:13) So, humanly speaking, the courts have little incentive to rule against our powerful religious and political opposers and to come to our aid. Nevertheless, courts have repeatedly decided in our favor! Our legal victories prove that we walk “in the sight of God and in company with Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17) Hence, with the apostle Paul, we declare: “Jehovah is my helper; I will not be afraid.”​—Heb. 13:6.

^ par. 9 This case, Cantwell v. State of Connecticut, was the first of 43 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that Brother Hayden Covington would handle in defense of the brothers. He died in 1978. His widow, Dorothy, served faithfully until her death in 2015 at 92 years of age.

^ par. 12 The charge was based on a law enacted in 1606. It allowed a jury to declare a person guilty if they felt that what that one said promoted hostility​—even if what was said was true.

^ par. 14 In 1950, 164 full-time ministers served in Quebec​—including 63 Gilead graduates who had willingly accepted their assignment despite the fierce opposition that awaited them.

^ par. 15 Brother W. Glen How was a courageous attorney who, from 1943 to 2003, skillfully fought hundreds of legal battles for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada and abroad.

^ par. 16 For more details of this case, see the article “The Battle Is Not Yours, but God’s” in the April 22, 2000, issue of Awake! pages 18-24.

^ par. 32 The Civil Guard eventually vacated the branch property; but new branch facilities were constructed in another location.