October 24, 2007

A Delicate Balance: The Free Exercise Clause and the Supreme Court

Glimmers of Change

The Cantwell Decision and the Jehovah’s Witnesses Cases

The most important of these pre-Warren rulings was handed down in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940). In this decision, the court held that the Free Exercise Clause applied to the states on the grounds that religious freedom is part of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which protects “life, liberty and property” against arbitrary interference by the states. Until Cantwell, the Free Exercise Clause had regulated only the actions of the federal government and did not in any way apply to state laws or actions regarding religion.

In the end, however, Cantwell’s potential impact on religious freedom was tempered by the fact that the case was ultimately more about freedom of speech than the free exercise of religion. Jesse Cantwell had been convicted of disturbing the peace after he played an anti-Catholic record on a street corner in New Haven, Conn. The court overturned his conviction, but the decision emphasized Cantwell’s First Amendment right to free speech as well as religious liberty. Thus, Cantwell implicitly reaffirmed the core principle of Reynolds and Davis that the Free Exercise Clause affords no special exemption for religious actions that contravene the law.

Around the same time that Cantwell was decided, the court issued two related rulings that further affirmed the interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause spelled out in Reynolds and Davis. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), the court ruled that the clause did not give religiously motivated public school children, who in this case were Jehovah’s Witnesses, the right to opt out of a compulsory flag-salute ceremony. The Gobitis decision led to reports that Jehovah’s Witnesses were being threatened and even physically assaulted for refusing to salute the flag.

Just three years later, the court took up a virtually identical case, once again involving the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag. This time, though, the result was quite different. In West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the court overruled Gobitis and recognized students’ right not to participate in such a ceremony. But like the Cantwell decision, the ruling in Barnette still did not recognize a religion-based right to special treatment. Instead, the court again based the decision on the right of free speech, concluding that the school board had no power to compel any student, regardless of the reasons for the student’s resistance, to participate in a ritual of patriotism.

Thus the Barnette case did not alter the court’s general rule on the Free Exercise Clause that had been laid out in Reynolds and subsequent decisions. Indeed, shortly after Barnette, the court further affirmed the same principle in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). In that case, it held that the Free Exercise Clause did not exempt a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses from child labor laws even though the child was selling religious materials as a matter of religious duty.

However, the same year as the Prince ruling, the court handed down another decision that affirmed the other, more religion-friendly side of the Reynolds doctrine – that the Free Exercise Clause protects religious belief. That case, U.S. v. Ballard (1944), centered on the conviction for mail fraud of Guy Ballard, a faith healer who claimed to possess supernatural healing powers. In Ballard, the high court ruled that the state cannot question the truth or validity of someone’s religious beliefs – in this case, the state could not pass judgment on Ballard’s belief that God grants certain people, including himself, special powers of healing. The court went on to say, however, that the government is free to examine whether someone holds such beliefs sincerely. As a result, the court upheld Ballard’s conviction and ruled that the judge in his case had correctly charged the jury in his fraud trial with deciding whether Ballard’s religious claims were made sincerely and in good faith.

 

Photo credit: Oswald Eckstein/Corbis