Cantwell v. Connecticut 1940

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Cantwell v. Connecticut 1940

Appellants: Newton Cantwell, Jesse Cantwell, Russell Cantwell

Appellee: State of Connecticut

Appellants' Claim: That a state law requiring a public official to approve a religion before its members can make door-to-door solicitations violates the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Chief Lawyer for Appellants: Hayden C. Covington

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: Edwin S. Pickett and Francis A. Pallotti

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Charles Evans Hughes, James Clark McReynolds, Frank Murphy, Stanley Forman Reed, Owen Josephus Roberts (writing for the Court), Harlan Fiske Stone

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: May 20, 1940

Decision: The state law violated the freedom of religion. The Supreme Court said a state may control the time, place, and manner of solicitation only if it does not treat religions differently.

Significance: The Court made it clear that states must recognize the freedom of religion as laid out in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Exercising religion

One of the freedoms protected by law in the United States is the right to choose and speak about one's religious beliefs. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects this freedom by preventing Congress from passing any laws that prohibit, or ban, the "free exercise" of religion. This portion of the First Amendment is called the Free Exercise Clause.

One of the greatest tests of freedom of religion in America comes when different religions clash. Centuries ago, before the United States declared independence from England, the British government took care of this problem by outlawing all religions except the official Church of England. The Free Exercise Clause was written to prevent the U.S. government from having such power over religion. Cantwell v. Connecticut tested the strength of this freedom in the United States.

Spreading the faith

Newton Cantwell and his two sons, Jesse and Russell, were Jehovah's Witnesses living in Connecticut in the 1930s. Jehovah's Witnesses is a form of Christianity that believes the end of the world is near. Its members spend much of their time preaching to others to gain new members before the end arrives.

Newton Cantwell and his sons went from door to door in a neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut, preaching their faith. Most of the people in the neighborhood were Roman Catholic. The Cantwells had books about the Jehovah's Witnesses religion and portable record players with records that described the books. The Cantwells asked people to listen to the records and buy the books. When people refused, the Cantwells asked for a donation of money to support the Jehovah's Witnesses.

On one occasion Jesse Cantwell stopped on the street to talk to two men, both of whom were Catholic. The men were angry to hear that the Jehovah's Witnesses's material spoke badly of Catholics, calling them "Enemies." One of the men wanted to hit the Cantwells, and both told the Cantwells to leave them alone. The Cantwells left immediately.

The police arrested the Cantwells and charged them with violating many Connecticut laws. The trial court convicted, or found them guilty, of breaking two of the laws. The first law said members of a religion could not solicit donations, that is, ask for money, without first getting a license from the state secretary of public welfare. The law allowed the secretary to refuse to give a license to anyone he did not think had a real religion. The Cantwells had not received a license. The second law prohibited a breach of the peace. The trial court said the Cantwells violated this law by angering the Catholic men on the street.

The Cantwells appealed to the state supreme court. They said convicting them of crimes for trying to spread their religion violated the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The supreme court disagreed and affirmed, or approved, most of the convictions, so the Cantwells appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Limiting the freedom of religion

In a decision agreed on by all nine justices, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions. The Court began by rejecting Connecticut's argument that the First Amendment applies only to the federal government and not to state governments. The Court noted that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents state governments from taking away a person's liberty, or freedom, in an unlawful manner. According to the Court, one of the freedoms protected by the Fourteenth Amendment is the freedom of religion. That means state governments must recognize the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

The Court decided that convicting the Cantwells violated their freedom of religion. The freedom to exercise religion has two parts. One is the freedom to believe, and the other is the freedom to act on that belief. The freedom of religious belief is absolute, meaning the government cannot tell a person what to believe and what not to believe.


J ehovah's Witnesses is a form of Christianity that began in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1872. Its members believe that God should be called Jehovah, and that God's followers should be called Witnesses. They got this from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, which says "Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and I am God."

Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to follow laws that they believe conflict with the Bible. This has led many Jehovah's Witnesses to challenge laws before the U.S. Supreme Court.

For example, Jehovah's Witnesses obey the Bible's command to spread its teachings by trying to convince others to join the organization. This led to the case of Cantwell v. Connecticut, in which Jehovah's Witnesses who went door to door in a mostly Catholic neighborhood were convicted for unlawful solicitation. The Supreme Court overturned the convictions because the state law violated the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal to say the pledge of allegiance in school led to the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. In this case the Supreme Court decided that being forced to say the pledge of allegiance violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The freedom of religious action, however, is not absolute. The government may regulate religious activity for the safety and general wellbeing of society. The Court said that as long as it does not discriminate against any religion (meaning treat religions differently), Connecticut may pass laws affecting the time, place, and manner in which a person may engage in religious activity, including solicitation.

The Connecticut law did not pass this test. It discriminated by giving the secretary of public welfare the power to give a license to some religions and not to others. The Court said that kind of power was the exact evil the Free Exercise Clause was designed to prevent.

Similarly, the conviction for breach of the peace violated the freedom of religion. The Cantwells did not pose a danger to society by preaching their religion on the street, where they had a right to be. Convicting people for breach of the peace when they peacefully try to spread their religion is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Cantwell's legacy

The Bill of Rights protects U.S. citizens from having their rights violated by the federal government. In 1940 it still wasn't clear whether state and local governments had to recognize the individual rights contained in the Bill of Rights. Cantwell was part of an important trend that, today, requires state and local governments to recognize almost all of the freedoms laid out in the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Gay, Kathlyn. Church and State: Government and Religion in the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Hirst, Mike. Freedom of Belief. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Sherrow, Victoria. Freedom of Worship. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.