“The Battle Is Not Yours, but God’s”

AS TOLD BY W. GLEN HOW

During the past six decades, Jehovah’s Witnesses have fought many legal battles in Canada. Their victories have not gone unnoticed by the legal community. For the part that I played in some of these struggles, I was recently presented with the Award for Courageous Advocacy, by the American College of Trial Lawyers. At the award ceremony, it was stated that cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses “formed important bulwarks against state excess . . ., for they created a judicially recognized implied bill of rights, one that recognized and protected the freedoms of all Canadians.” Let me share with you details of some of these court cases and tell you how I came to be involved in law and with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

IN 1924, George Rix, a Bible Student, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called, visited my parents in Toronto, Canada. My mother, Bessie How, a tiny woman, invited him in for a discussion. I was five years old, and my brother, Joe, was three.

Mother soon began to attend meetings of the Bible Students in Toronto. In 1929 she became a pioneer, or full-time minister, and continued in that activity until 1969, when she finished her earthly course. Her determined and tireless ministry set a fine example for us and helped many to come to a knowledge of Bible truth.

My father, Frank How, was a quiet man who at first opposed Mother’s religious activities. However, she wisely invited traveling ministers, such as George Young, to visit and talk with him. In time, Father’s attitude mellowed. As he observed the beneficial effect of Bible truth on his family, he became very supportive, although he never did become a Witness.

Making a Decision to Serve God

In 1936, I graduated from high school. During my teen years, I was not very interested in spiritual things. We were in the midst of the Great Depression, and job prospects were bleak. So I went to the University of Toronto. In 1940, I decided to go to law school. This decision did not surprise my mother. When I was a child, she had often said in exasperation: “That little rascal will argue about anything! He will probably turn out to be a lawyer!”

On July 4, 1940, just before I began law school, the Canadian government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses without warning. This was the turning point in my life. When the full power of government targeted this tiny organization of innocent, humble people, it convinced me that Jehovah’s Witnesses were Jesus’ true followers. Just as he had prophesied, they were “objects of hatred by all the nations on account of [his] name.” (Matthew 24:9) I resolved to serve the Divine Power  behind this organization. On February 10, 1941, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism.

I wanted to get right into the pioneer work. However, Jack Nathan, who was then taking a lead in the preaching work in Canada, encouraged me to complete my legal training. So I did, and I graduated in May 1943, after which I started pioneering. In August, I was invited to serve at the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Toronto and assist with the legal problems that Jehovah’s Witnesses were facing. The following month I was admitted to the bar in Ontario, Canada.

Legally Defending the Good News

World War II was raging, and the Witnesses were still banned in Canada. Men and women were being imprisoned simply for being Jehovah’s Witnesses. Children were being expelled from school, some even being placed in foster homes. This was because they refused to engage in nationalistic forms of worship, such as saluting the flag or singing the national anthem. Professor William Kaplan, who wrote a book entitled State and Salvation: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Fight for Civil Rights, said that the “Witnesses were publicly reviled and the object of both state action and private attacks by an intolerant government and an openly hostile citizenry caught up in the passions and patriotism of the war.”

The Witnesses had been seeking to get the ban removed but without success. Suddenly, on October 14, 1943, it was lifted. Yet, Witnesses were still in prisons and labor camps, children were still denied access to public schooling, and the ban continued against the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and the International Bible Students Association, a corporation that held title to our property in Toronto.

In late 1943, I traveled to New York with Percy Chapman, who was the Canada branch servant, to consult with Nathan Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Society, and Hayden Covington, the Society’s vice president and legal counsel. Brother Covington’s legal experience was immense. He eventually won an astounding 36 out of 45 appeals before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Relief came slowly to the Witnesses in Canada. In 1944 the branch property in Toronto was restored, and those who had been serving there before the ban were able to  return. In 1945 the highest court for the province of Ontario declared that children may not be forced to share in exercises to which they have conscientious objections. It ordered that the expelled schoolchildren be readmitted to school. Finally, in 1946 the Canadian government released all Witnesses from labor camps. Under Brother Covington’s guidance, I learned to fight these issues with courage and determination but, above all, with reliance on Jehovah.

The Battle of Quebec

While the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses was now respected in most parts of Canada, there was one exception—the French Catholic province of Quebec. This province had been directly controlled by the Roman Catholic Church for more than 300 years. Schools, hospitals, and most public services were either run by the clergy or controlled by them. There was even a throne for the Catholic cardinal beside the speaker’s chair in the Quebec legislature!

The premier and attorney general of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis, was a dictator who, according to Quebec historian Gérard Pelletier, inflicted upon the province “a twenty-year reign of lies, injustice and corruption, the systematic misuse of power, the sway of small minds and the triumph of stupidity.” Duplessis consolidated his political power by working hand in glove with Roman Catholic Cardinal Villeneuve.

By the early 1940’s, there were 300 Witnesses in Quebec. Many, including my brother Joe, were pioneers from other parts of Canada. As the preaching work increased in Quebec, the local police, under pressure from the clergy, retaliated by harassing the Witnesses with repeated arrests and by misapplying commercial bylaws to our religious activities.

I was traveling between Toronto and Quebec so often that I was eventually assigned to move to Quebec to assist non-Witness lawyers who were representing our Christian brothers and sisters. Every day my first job was to find out how many had been arrested the day before and hurry to the local courthouse to arrange bail. Fortunately, a well-to-do Witness, Frank Roncarelli, supplied bail in many of these cases.

From 1944 to 1946, the number of prosecutions for alleged bylaw violations soared from 40 to 800! Not only were public authorities arresting and harassing Witnesses continuously but unruly mobs, incited by the Catholic clergy, were also attacking them.

On November 2 and 3, 1946, a special meeting was held in Montreal to address this crisis. Brother Knorr gave the last talk, entitled “What Shall We Do?” All in attendance were delighted to hear his answer—he read aloud the now historic document Quebec’s Burning Hate for God and Christ and Freedom Is the Shame of All Canada. It was a sizzling four-page tract—a detailed exposé with names, dates, and places of clergy-instigated riots,  police brutality, arrests, and mob violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Quebec. Distribution began across Canada just 12 days later.

Within days, Duplessis announced publicly a “war without mercy” against Jehovah’s Witnesses. But unwittingly he worked in our favor. How so? By directing that anyone distributing Quebec’s Burning Hate be charged with sedition—a very serious crime that would lead us out of the Quebec courts and into the Supreme Court of Canada. In his rage, Duplessis recklessly ignored that consequence. Then he personally ordered the cancellation of the liquor license of Frank Roncarelli, who had been our main source of bail. With no wine available, Brother Roncarelli’s fine restaurant in Montreal was closed in a matter of months, and he was financially ruined.

Arrests multiplied. Instead of 800 prosecutions, we soon faced 1,600. Many lawyers and judges complained that all these cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses were clogging the Quebec courts. In response, we would suggest an easy remedy: Let the police arrest the criminals instead of the Christians. That would solve the problem!

Two courageous Jewish lawyers, A. L. Stein of Montreal and Sam S. Bard of Quebec City, assisted by acting for us in many cases, especially before I was admitted to the Quebec bar in 1949. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, later prime minister of Canada, wrote that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Quebec had “been mocked, persecuted, and hated by our entire society; but they have managed by legal means to fight Church, government, nation, police, and public opinion.”

The attitude of the Quebec courts was manifest in the treatment of my brother, Joe. He was charged with disturbing the peace. Recorder Jean Mercier sentenced Joe to the maximum penalty of 60 days in jail. Then, losing control completely, he shouted from the bench that he wished he could send Joe to prison for life!

One newspaper said that Mercier gave orders to Quebec police to “arrest on sight every known or suspected Witness.” Such behavior only proved the truthfulness of the accusations in our tract Quebec’s Burning Hate. The following are some typical headlines of Canadian newspapers outside Quebec: “The Dark Ages Return to Quebec” (The Toronto Star), “Return of the Inquisition” (The Globe and Mail, Toronto), “The Stench of Fascism” (The Gazette, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia).

Defending the Charge of Sedition

In 1947, I assisted Mr. Stein in our first sedition case to be tried, that of Aimé Boucher. Aimé had distributed some tracts near his home. At Aimé’s trial we proved that Quebec’s Burning Hate contained no falsehoods but that it only used strong language to complain about atrocities against Jehovah’s Witnesses. We showed that no charges had ever been laid against those who had  committed these atrocities. Aimé had been convicted simply for publicizing them. The prosecution’s position came down to this: It had become a crime to tell the truth!

The Quebec courts had relied upon a vague, 350-year-old definition of “sedition,” which suggested that anyone criticizing the government could be convicted of a crime. Duplessis too relied on that definition in order to suppress criticism of his regime. But in 1950 the Supreme Court of Canada accepted our submission that in a modern democracy, “sedition” requires incitement to violence or insurrection against the government. Quebec’s Burning Hate contained no such incitements and was therefore a lawful form of free speech. With this one momentous decision, all 123 sedition cases evaporated! I saw firsthand how Jehovah gave the victory.

Battling Censorship

Quebec City had a bylaw that prohibited distribution of literature without a permit from the chief of police. This was direct censorship and therefore a violation of religious liberty. Laurier Saumur, then serving as a traveling overseer, had been jailed for three months under this bylaw and faced several other charges under it.

In 1947 a civil suit was filed in Brother Saumur’s name to enjoin Quebec City from enforcing its bylaw against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Quebec courts ruled against us, and again we appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. In October 1953, after a seven-day hearing before all nine judges of that Court, our request for an injunction was granted. The Court recognized that the public distribution of printed Bible sermons is a fundamental part of the Christian worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses and therefore is constitutionally protected from censorship.

Thus the Boucher case decided that what Jehovah’s Witnesses were saying was lawful; but the Saumur decision established how and where it could be said. The victory in the Saumur case led to the dismissal of over 1,100 bylaw charges in Quebec. More than 500 charges in Montreal were also withdrawn for total lack of evidence. Soon the slate was clean—there were no prosecutions left in Quebec!

Duplessis’ Final Attack

Having no laws left to use against Jehovah’s Witnesses, in early January 1954, Duplessis introduced into the legislature a new law, Bill No. 38, which was described by the media as the ‘anti-Jehovah’s Witnesses law.’ It provided that those who suspected that any person intended to make a statement that was “abusive or insulting” could file a complaint without the need to provide any evidence. As attorney general, Duplessis could then get an injunction to prohibit the accused person from making any public statement. Once the injunction was issued against one individual, all members of that person’s church were equally prohibited from speaking. In addition, all the Bibles and religious literature belonging to that church would be seized and destroyed, and all of its places of worship would be closed until the case was decided, which might take years.

Bill No. 38 copied a law devised in the 15th century during the Spanish Inquisition under Torquemada. The accused person and all his associates lost all civil rights without any proof of wrongdoing. Regarding Bill No. 38, the press announced that the provincial police had been instructed to close all the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses and to seize and destroy their Bibles and other literature. Faced with this monstrous threat, Jehovah’s Witnesses removed all their religious publications from the province. They did, however, continue their public preaching work but with just their personal copies of the Bible.

 The bill became law on January 28, 1954. On January 29, at 9:00 a.m., I was at the courthouse door to file an action on behalf of all of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the province of Quebec, seeking a permanent injunction against this law before Duplessis could even use it. The judge did not grant a temporary injunction because Bill No. 38 had not yet been used. But he said that if the government tried to use it, I could come back to him for protection. The judge’s action thus had the same effect as a temporary injunction, for as soon as Duplessis even tried to use this law, he would be stopped!

During the next week, we waited to see whether the police would take any action under this new law. Nothing happened! To find out why not, I arranged a test. Two pioneers, Victoria Dougaluk (later Steele) and Helen Dougaluk (later Simcox), went from house to house with literature in Trois-Rivières, Duplessis’ hometown. Again, no reaction. While the sisters were so engaged, I sent Laurier Saumur to telephone the provincial police. Without identifying himself, he complained that Jehovah’s Witnesses were preaching and that the police were not enforcing Duplessis’ new law.

Sheepishly, the officer in charge said: “Yes, we know that the law was passed; but the next day Jehovah’s Witnesses got an injunction against us, so there is nothing we can do.” Immediately, we moved our literature back into the province, and during the ten years that this case worked its way up through the courts, our preaching work went ahead successfully.

In addition to the injunction, we also sought to have Bill No. 38 declared unconstitutional. To prove that this law was aimed squarely at Jehovah’s Witnesses, we decided on a bold move—to send Duplessis himself a subpoena, compelling him to attend the trial and give evidence. I cross-examined him for two and a half hours. I repeatedly confronted him with his public declarations of “war without mercy on the Witnesses of Jehovah” and his statement that Bill No. 38 would be the end of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Quebec. Enraged, he attacked me personally: “You are a very impertinent young man!”

“Mr. Duplessis,” I replied, “if we were discussing personalities, I might have a few remarks of my own. But since we have business to attend to, would you please explain to the court why you did not answer the last question.”

In 1964, I argued the Bill No. 38 case before the Supreme Court of Canada. But they declined to rule on its constitutionality because the law had never been used. However, by that time Duplessis was dead, and no one cared about Bill No. 38 any longer. It was never used against Jehovah’s Witnesses or anyone else.

Shortly before Duplessis died in 1959, he was ordered by the Supreme Court of Canada to pay damages to Brother Roncarelli for having illegally canceled his liquor license. Since that time many of the people of Quebec have become very friendly. The number of Witnesses there has grown from 300 in 1943 to over 33,000 today, according to a government census. Jehovah’s Witnesses are now listed as the fourth-largest religious group in the province. I do not regard these legal victories or the success of the ministry of Jehovah’s Witnesses as achievements of any human. Rather, it has proved to me that Jehovah gives the victory, for the battle is his and not ours.—2 Chronicles 20:15.

Changes of Circumstances

In 1954, I married a charming pioneer from England, Margaret Biegel, and we took up the pioneer work together. I continued to conduct court cases on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses in both Canada and the United States and to serve as consultant on some  cases in Europe and Australia. Margaret became my secretary and was an invaluable support for many years. In 1984, I returned, along with Margaret, to live at the Canada branch, and I helped to reestablish a Legal Department. Sadly, in 1987, Margaret died of cancer.

After my mother’s death in 1969, my brother Joe and his wife, Elsie, who had both been trained as missionaries in the ninth class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, took my father into their home and cared for him until his death 16 years later. In this self-sacrificing way, they enabled me to stay in the full-time service, and for this I shall always be grateful.

Continued Battles

Over the years, the legal battles of Jehovah’s Witnesses have changed. Many cases involved securing property and permits for Kingdom Halls and Assembly Halls. Others were child-custody disputes in which non-Witness parents used religious bigotry either to gain sole custody or to restrict Witness parents from sharing beneficial religious beliefs and practices with their own children.

An American lawyer, Linda Manning, came to the Canada branch in 1989 to provide temporary legal assistance. In November of that year, we were married and have been happily serving together here since then.

In the 1990’s, John Burns, a fellow lawyer here at the Canada branch, and I were in Japan together and helped our Christian brothers there to win a constitutional case involving the freedom of a student not to participate in martial arts classes required by his school. We also had a victory in a case regarding the right of an adult to refuse a blood transfusion.

Then in 1995 and 1996, Linda and I were privileged to spend five months in Singapore because of the ban against Jehovah’s Witnesses in that land and the resulting prosecutions. I defended 64 men, women, and youths facing criminal charges for attending Christian meetings and possessing Bibles and religious literature. We did not win any of these cases, but we saw how Jehovah strengthened his faithful servants to endure with integrity and joy.

Grateful to Have Had a Share

At the age of 80, I rejoice to be in good health and to be able to continue to have a share in fighting the legal battles of Jehovah’s people. I am still ever ready to go to court and make a stand for what is right. It is my pleasure to have seen the number of Witnesses in Canada grow from 4,000 in 1940 to 111,000 at the present time. People and events come and go, but Jehovah keeps moving his people constantly forward, ensuring that they prosper spiritually.

Are there problems? Yes, but the Word of Jehovah reassures us: “Any weapon whatever that will be formed against you will have no success.” (Isaiah 54:17) Based on the more than 56 years I have spent in the full-time ministry ‘defending and legally establishing the good news,’ I can testify to how true Isaiah’s prophecy is!—Philippians 1:7.

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With my younger brother and our parents

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Hayden Covington, legal counsel

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With Nathan Knorr

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Duplessis kneeling before Cardinal Villeneuve

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Photo by W. R. Edwards

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Frank Roncarelli

[Credit Line]

Courtesy Canada Wide

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Aimé Boucher

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With fellow lawyers John Burns and my wife Linda