APRIL 27, 2015
Dorothy Mae Sennett Covington, who in the 1940’s and 1950’s found herself at the center of the fight for the civil liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses, died on March 14, 2015, at the age of 92 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In the Middle of the Battle for Constitutional Rights
During the 1940’s, Dorothy volunteered as a legal assistant for attorney Victor Schmidt, who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and who was working to defend their civil rights. It was a time when Jehovah’s Witnesses faced intense persecution in the United States because of the rise of nationalism that accompanied the escalation of World War II. The neutral stand of the Witnesses regarding nationalistic ceremonies and their conscientious objection to military service ran counter to the spirit of the times. The book The Lustre of Our Country observed that the “persecution of Witnesses from 1941 to 1943 was the greatest outbreak of religious intolerance in twentieth-century America.”
The Witnesses faced attacks from mobs and were arrested throughout the United States, including the Cincinnati, Ohio, area and nearby Indiana. Victor Schmidt would travel throughout the region to defend Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been illegally arrested. Meanwhile, Dorothy was not only supporting the legal work at Victor Schmidt’s office but also courageously facing the threat of mob violence herself while participating in the public ministry.
Significant to Dorothy were the events that led to mob violence at Connersville, Indiana. Just 17 days after the Supreme Court’s adverse decision in the 1940 flag salute case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the sheriff in Connersville had six Witnesses arrested and charged with flag desecration for refusing to salute an American flag lapel pin. It was here in Connersville that Victor Schmidt and Hayden Covington, the general legal counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses from 1939-1963, defended two of the Witnesses who were later also falsely charged with conspiracy.
After making his closing argument, Mr. Covington left immediately to catch a plane for a trial in Maine, but Victor Schmidt and his wife stayed for the verdict. Afterward, they were violently attacked by a growing mob. Victor, his wife, and others suffered blow after blow but eventually escaped the mob.
In an interview just three weeks before her death, Dorothy commented that ten months after the verdict, 75 Witnesses were jailed in Connersville for the same false charge of conspiracy. Dorothy said: “A lot of us Witnesses were arrested, and it was that time, the time of Connersville, that was the height of the persecution against us.”
Hayden Covington, Victor Schmidt, and others continued to defend the civil liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Covington and Schmidt succeeded in having the guilty verdicts in Connersville overturned, and Covington assisted Schmidt on other cases in the region. As Dorothy supported that collaboration as a legal assistant, she and Hayden became friends. They married in 1949.
At the Witnesses’ World Headquarters
Dorothy moved to New York to support Hayden with his heavy workload at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, and continued to devote time to her public ministry while Hayden fought many legal battles. Widely recognized as one of the best constitutional lawyers of his time, Covington worked tirelessly on hundreds of cases involving the civil liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He argued over 40 times before the Supreme Court and over 100 times in the federal circuit courts of appeals.
Dorothy accompanied Hayden to the Supreme Court when he argued cases on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses across the United States. She said: “Hayden supported the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted. I think it is wonderful that he spent his life helping those who needed it—not just in the United States but in many other places.”
Family and Ministry
In 1959, Dorothy and Hayden had a daughter named Lynn, and three years later, a son, Lane. Eventually, the family left New York and returned to Ohio in 1972. As the children grew, Dorothy spent her time teaching them from the Bible and centered her life on the ministry.
The family lost Hayden on November 21, 1978. Dorothy went back to her trade as a typesetter, working for various newspapers, including The Cincinnati Enquirer. Her work on a Linotype machine was strenuous, even considered “man’s work” because it included loading the machine with the lead bars used to cast the slug for a line of text. Upon her retirement in 1988, Dorothy again took up full-time volunteer work to teach people about the Bible. She was known for her undiminished zeal, her thorough Bible knowledge, and her ability to answer questions by turning directly to an appropriate Bible verse.
Dorothy was predeceased by her son, Lane, and is survived by her daughter, Lynn Elfers; her son-in-law, Gary Elfers; two grandchildren; and her younger sister, Ruth Sennett Naids.