Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)

Door to Door Religion
Door to Door Religion. SuperStock/Getty

Can the government require people to get a special license in order to spread their religious message or promote their religious beliefs in residential neighborhoods? That used to be common, but it was challenged by Jehovah's Witnesses who argued that the government didn't have the authority to impose such restrictions on people.

 

Background Information

Newton Cantwell and his two sons traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, in order to promote their message as Jehovah's Witnesses.

In New Haven, a statute required that anyone wishing to solicit funds or distribute materials had to apply for a license - if the official in charge found that they were a bona fide charity or religious, then a license would be granted. Otherwise, a license was denied.

The Cantwells did not apply for a license because, in their opinion, the government was in no position to certify Witnesses as a religion - such a decision was simply outside the government's secular authority. As a result they were were convicted under a statute which forbade the unlicensed soliciting of funds for religious or charitable purposes, and also under a general charge of breach of the peace because they had been going door-to-door with books and pamphlets in a predominantly Roman Catholic area, playing a record entitled "Enemies" which attacked Catholicism.

Cantwell alleged that the statute they had been convicted under infringed upon their right to free speech and challenged it in the courts.

 

Court Decision

With Justice Roberts writing the majority opinion, the Supreme Court found that statutes requiring a license to solicit for religious purposes constituted a prior restraint upon speech and gave the government too much power in determining which groups were permitted to solicit. The officer who issued licences for solicitation was authorized to inquire whether the applicant did have a religious cause and to decline a license if in his view the cause was not religious, which gave government officials too much authority over religious questions.

Such a censorship of religion as the means of determining its right to survive is a denial of liberty protected by the First Amendment and included in the liberty which is within the protection of the Fourteenth.

Even if an error by the secretary can be corrected by the courts, the process still serves as an unconstitutional prior restraint:

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.

The breach of the peace accusation arose because the three accosted two Catholics in a strongly Catholic neighborhood and played them a phonograph record which, in their opinion, insulted the Christian religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. The Court voided this conviction under the clear-and-present danger test, ruling that the interest sought to be upheld by the State did not justify the suppression of religious views that simply annoyed others.

Cantwell and his sons may have been spreading a message that was unwelcome and disturbing, but they did not physically attack anyone.

According to the Court, the Cantwells simply did not pose a threat to public order merely by spreading their message:

In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times, resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained in the light of history, that, in spite of the probabilities of excesses and abuses, these liberties are in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.

 

Significance

This judgement prohibited governments from creating special requirements for people spreading religious ideas and sharing a message in an unfriendly environment because such speech acts do not automatically represent a "threat to public order."

This decision was also notable because it was the first time that the Court had incorporated the Free Exercise Clause into the Fourteenth Amendment - and after this case, it always has.