tv Jehovahs Witnesses Human Rights CSPAN April 13, 2019 9:15pm-9:54pm EDT
in 1943, the supreme court ruled in a 6-3 decision that public school students could not be forced to salute the american flag after several jehovah's witnesses challenged their expulsion from a west virginia public school. next on american history tv, a session from a daylong event hosted by the robert h. jackson center to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the west virginia board of education v. barnette u.s. supreme court case. talk, theyminute talk about the struggle of jehovah's witnesses and her r efforts to advance human and civil rights globally. >> i am privileged to introduce our keynote speaker.
philip brumley is general counsel for jehovah's witnesses world headquarters offices and he will be presenting the topic, jehovah's witnesses, canaries in the coal mine of human rights. ladies and gentlemen, phil brumley. [applause] it is a real privilege to be here at the jackson center to commemorate the anniversary of west virginia v. barnette. we want to thank mr. peterson, mr. loftis for what they have done for the office of public information in collaborating with the jackson center. as mentioned, the title of our consideration is jehovah's witnesses, canaries in the coal mine of human rights. mining is a dangerous job. you hear of collapses all the time. miners face another danger. it is poisonous gases.
they are not aware of. as recently as 1980, coal miners had the custom of carrying canaries with them deep into the earth. because of their anatomy, canaries receive one dose of oxygen when they breathe in, and another dose of oxygen when they breathe out and as a result, they get a double dose of air. that means canaries are more susceptible to toxic gases like carbon monoxide and methane. the miners knew that if the canary started to show signs of distress, they had to get out, and if they did not get out, it could cost them their life. even as those miners depended on canaries to save their lives, when it comes to human rights, as i am going to explain in a few minutes, jehovah's witnesses are the canaries in the coal mine of human rights.
in the following minutes, i would like to discuss four questions with you and respond to them. first, are jehovah's witnesses social activist? if not, then why are they engaged in so much litigation? and why are the legal struggles of jehovah's witnesses, canaries in the coal mine of human rights, of interest to you and to me? and finally, how how what they -- how have the victories obtained by jehovah's witnesses not justhuman rights here in the united states, but worldwide. some time ago, a small group of jehovah's witnesses were gathered to study the bible. there were few witnesses so they , were not meeting in a kingdom hall, but rather in a private home. this evening, something unusual happened. three men knocked on the door and asked if they could join the small group. of course, the group was
menrised and invited the in. they gave them a bible and the publication they were studying. what the witnesses did not know, these men were government agents. they had come to spy on this small group. later at trial, they testified against the small group, and as a result, four of the witnesses were convicted of sedition and sentenced to three years in prison. as i told you that story, what country comes to your mind? would that be russia, maybe china? saudi arabia? no, this happened in 1918 in san bernardino, california. the ones arrested were edward hamm, e.j. sonnenburg, mr. stephens, and emma martin. doesn't she look like a criminal? [laughter] mr. brumley: what was their crime? what have they done to deserve sentencing to prison? they were using a copy of a finnish mystery in connection
with their study of the bible. in the leadership of the 1918, international rival students association as , jehovah's witnesses were known then, were convicted of espionage for having written and distributed the finished mystery. these men were sentenced to 20 years in the federal penitentiary for having produced that book. which leads to the obvious question, what was so dangerous about the finished mystery? with remarkable clarity, that publication documented the failings of the catholic church during the middle ages. unable to attack the accuracy of what was in the book, the church used its political influence to convince federal authorities that jehovah's witnesses were nothing more than agents of the german government helping germany win the first world war. it was not just the catholic church that went after jehovah's witnesses. protestant leaders went after them as well. one reverend said this in the daily telegram, a newspaper
that used to be produced in brooklyn, "one of your patriotic duties that confronts you as citizens is the suppression of the international bible students association, with headquarters in brooklyn. they have, under the guise of religion, been carrying on german propaganda." ludicrous. just one year later after the leadership had spent less than a year in prison, the actual ludicrousness of the conviction was seen to all, and the leadership of jehovah's witnesses were released and set free. one year later, 1920, the four witnesses i talked to you about earlier went to prison. even after the leadership had been released, they went to prison on may 17, 1920. they were sentenced to three years, as i mentioned. three of them went to a federal penitentiary. back then, california did not have a federal penitentiary for women, so emma martin was sentenced to san quentin state
penitentiary. on june 20, sunday evening, across the united states, jehovah's witnesses sent telegrams to president wilson, condemning what happened. the very next morning, monday, june 21, wilson pardoned all four, and they were immediately released from prison. what i just described to you this morning are the first two legal battles of jehovah's witnesses, but they are certainly not the last. the last time we were in front of the supreme court of the united states was in 2002. that had to do with litigation between jehovah's witnesses and the town of stratton, ohio. during the 1990's, the municipal authorities of stratton had insisted that jehovah's witnesses obtain written permission -- written permission -- from the municipal authorities before they could go door-to-door. efforts were made to try to resolve the conflict but to no avail. the matter was taken to court.
jehovah's witnesses actually lost in the district court and in the circuit court as well and then took the case to the supreme court. on july 17, 2002, the supreme court ruled in favor of jehovah's witnesses 8-1. rehnquist was the only dissenter. over the ensuing dates following the decision, uniformly, across the board, legal scholars praised the supreme court for what it had done. let me just share with you one quote. this is from charles c. haynes, the senior scholar of the first amendment center, he said this, "jehovah's witnesses have done it again. they have chalked up their 48 supreme court victory." pause. he missed two. the number is actually 50 but we will continue. "an extraordinary line of cases that have significantly expanded first amendment protection for all americans," and notice what he added.
"we all owe jehovah's witnesses a debt of gratitude. no matter how many times they are insulted ran out of town, , or physically attacked, they keep fighting for their and thus, our freedom of religion, and when they win, we all win." that is the legal history of jehovah's witnesses, from 1918 to 2002. that leads us to our first question. are jehovah's witnesses social activists? the numbers suggest so. jehovah's witnesses worldwide , if you are taking notes, this is worth writing. worldwide have obtained 371 supreme court victories in 63 countries. that includes 50 victories here in the united states and 62 favorable decisions before the european court of human rights. that leads us to the second question. why are jehovah's witnesses involved in so much litigation? to answer this question, we have
to go to the bible. to understand a little bit about the beliefs of jehovah's witnesses. just as a foundation, jehovah's witnesses believe that the bible is the word of god, and you have to obey what is written in the bible. one of the standards in the bible is found in romans 13:1. it says the following -- "let every person be in subjection to the superior authority, for there is no authority except by god. existing authorities stand place d in their relative positions by god," so you get the point. a general standard followed by jehovah's witnesses is to have god's approval, you should be a loyal, honest citizen. so remember when lillian gobitas was asked at trial, her attorney asked, "do you believe in being loyal to your country?" answer "yes." , "do you obey the rules of minersville in general?" "yes."
"is saluting the flag the only regulation you have any difficulty with? "yes." she wanted to be an obedient citizen as far as she could. remember the bible uses the word "relative authority," so there is an exception to this standard, and that is when secular laws interfere with divine mandate. let me share one of these divine mandates with you. this is after resurrection of jesus, and he approaches his followers, the disciples and apostles. the verses read like this "jesus approached and said to them, all authority," and i will pause here -- "all authority," that meant, according to jesus, all authority on heaven and on earth -- "all authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth. go, therefore, and make disciples of people of all the nations, teaching them to
observe all the things i have commanded you." there was a divine mandate to talk to others about their faith. the early christians did just that. not months after the ascension of jesus to heaven, the apostles were called in to the high court in jerusalem because they had been talking about jesus. the high court said, "we strictly ordered you not to keep teaching on the basis of his name, and yet look, you still -- you have filled through slum with your teaching." what would be the apostles' response? these are famous words, acts 5:29, in answer, peter and the other apostles said "we must obey god as ruler rather than men." so you may not agree with the beliefs of jehovah's witnesses, and you may not understand all the beliefs of jehovah's
witnesses, but these are the guiding principles that motivate their conduct, to be law-abiding as much as possible, to be loyal citizens, but when push comes to and secular authorities demand something of jehovah's witnesses that conflicts with what they understand the bible teaches there is no discussion, , there is no debate, jehovah's witnesses have to follow what is written in the bible. so let me answer those first two questions. are jehovah's witnesses social activists? the answer is no. jehovah's witnesses view litigation as a last resort. then why are they before the court so often? jehovah's witnesses resort to litigation only on the few occasions when subjection to secular law would bring them into conflict with divine mandate. now, ladies and gentlemen, i get down to the question you are interested in. why should this matter to you? many of you are not jehovah's witnesses. most of you.
what relevance will this have in your life? you woke up yesterday, the younger ones, you went to school. others went to work. maybe you had household chores to take care of, or maybe yesterday was a day of leisure. you could relax and take it easy. as you went around your life yesterday, you did whatever you did without even thinking, most likely, about the fundamental freedoms, the fundamental rights you enjoy. for example, it never crossed your mind that if you wanted to go talk to your neighbors, let's say here in jamestown, you would have to first go downtown and get written permission from some municipal authority to go talk to your neighbors. that would not even come into your mind. it never came into your mind that you could be forced, if you are in school, to say something you did not believe, or if you have children in school, that your children could be forced to
say something that they did not believe. forced to say something that they didn't believe. it is certainly did not come into your mind yesterday that if you happened to talk to somebody about your faith, or if you are an atheist and you want to talk about the fact that you are atheist and others should be atheist as well, that you could go to jail just for saying those things. well, here is the point. a crucial turning point in the history of the united states, groups of people, notably jehovah's witnesses, stood up and challenged the authorities when those rights were challenged or threatened. thus when it comes to human rights, jehovah's witnesses are the canaries. history and current events have confirmed that worldwide jehovah's witnesses are one of the first groups to be threatened with the loss of
fundamental and civil rights. second point, history and current events also confirmed that when the rights of jehovah's witnesses are threatened, the rights of others will be soon threatened as well. conversely, history and current events confirmed that when jehovah's witnesses are successful in defending their rights, the rights of the majority are similarly benefited. let me give you two historical examples of this. you know jehovah's witnesses go door-to-door to talk to people about their faith. maybe on saturday morning they rang your doorbell, and you wonder "who is bothering me at this hour?" maybe it was even a little irritating that they came and talked to you. why do you jehovah's witnesses go door-to-door? what do the courts have to say about this? during the 1920's and the 1930's, a real effort was made to talk to others about their faith. as a result of this, it was not uncommon for jehovah's witnesses to be arrested. this is just one example. the journalists had a little fun with the letter "j." "76 jehovites jailed in joliet."
[laughter] joliet is a little town near chicago parent when the witnesses would come to town, authorities would round them up and arrest them as quickly as they could. the case is made the rounds through the court. frankly, ladies and gentlemen, the supreme court started drowning in jehovah's witnesses' appeals. by 1939, the supreme court had rendered five decisions, all confirming freedom of speech, freedom of religion, that witnesses could do just what they were doing. but in spite of these five rulings, they were still being arrested, and the supreme court thought, "what can we do to stem this tide of jehovah's witnesses appeals?" finally, in 1940, they found what they thought was the ideal case. people in new haven, connecticut, they were arrested.
the case found its way to the supreme court. may 20, 1940, unanimously, the supreme court held in favor of the cantwell family. let me read you one sentence that shows you a turning point in the progression of american jurisprudence. the court said this, "the first amendment declares that congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." i am going to pause. up toies and gentlemen, cantwell, the the supreme court had determined the first amendment as protecting the people of the united states from the wrongs committed by federal authorities. who was arresting jehovah's witnesses? not the federal authorities. it was the municipal authorities. in a landmark turnaround, the supreme court added a sentence, "the 14th amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states" -- meaning connecticut -- "as incompetent as congress to enact such laws."
this was a shift that expanded the protection of the first amendment. so as an american today, you are protected under the first amendment not just by wrongs committed by federal authorities but wrongs committed by state and municipal authority. who won that right for you? jehovah's witnesses. but just two weeks after this unanimous decision in cantwell, the supreme court handed down the crushing defeat that we talked about this morning in minersville school district v. gobitis. you know the issue, can schoolchildren be enforced to pledge allegiance when doing so would violate beliefs? the state said the government had the authority, and had to do what they were doing. in their brief to the supreme
court, the state said this, "such a demonstration of disrespect to our government will influence and affect other people in the school, and the morale of the respective communities, and ultimately of the nation itself, will be shaken and demoralized." do you get what they are saying? the state was saying, if we let children of jehovah's witnesses refuse to salute the flag, that could affect other students, then could in turn affect the parents, and we might very well lose the war. that was the argument, a powerful argument. by a 8-1 margin, the gobitis court agreed with the state. they said "a society that is dedicated to the preservation of freedom, may, in self protection," do you get the point? to protect our very survival, we will obligate these students to
say something they do not believe. when the case came down, as you heard from the fine ladies who spoke this morning, it was not just an esoteric decision about whether or not to salute the flag. the message received in the united states as a result of the gobitis decision was jehovah's witnesses are bad. they are a threat to the survival of the united states, and this unleashed a wave of persecution during the early 1940's, the likes of which have never been seen since. noticed this short video clip describing what happened. [video clip] >> on june 3, 1940, the supreme court ruled 8-1 against jehovah's witnesses. a ruling that would rock the country. [gavel] within days of the gobitis decision, the kingdom hall in kennebunk, maine was torched.
in illinois, a mob attacked witnesses as they were preaching, turning over cars and destroying their literature. in winnsboro, texas, a mob was determined to make them salute the flag. ♪ oscar: by now, they had the flag that they wanted me to salute. they would hold up my hand in the fashion, and i would not in that made them angry. >> the mob through the rope over a pipe and then pulled him up. ♪
he woke up in jail and near death. oscar: the next thing i knew, a doctor was bringing me to. the marshall said, and this put great courage into me, the marshall said "he is the most stubborn devil i have ever seen in my life," so i knew then that i had not compromised. >> some were tarred and feathered, others run out of town, some were castrated. this was not one or two communities, this was from maine to california to washington to georgia. philip: not just this clip, but as you heard from the professor last night and the program this morning, as a result of the mob violence against you as witnesses, the country started
to take notice of what was happening. one historian, john noonan, said this. "the legal," meaning police, "and illegal," meaning police did not intervene, "persecution of witnesses from 1941 to 1943 was the greatest outbreak of religious intolerance in 20th-century america.'' an interesting factoid, during these same three years of intense persecution, jehovah's witnesses in the united states grew by an average of 15% per year from 48,000 to 72,000 over the same three years. this takes us to west virginia v. barnette. as so capably demonstrated this morning, the mistreatment of jehovah's witnesses hit the conscience of every honest hearted american, and the supreme court also had a conscience. and realized it made a big mistake with gobitis, so much so that when walter barnette
brought his case to court, the court ruled in favor of the barnette family, and of course this went all the way to the supreme court, and this resulted in the famous decision we are commemorating it to this day, 75 years later. the supreme court said those in dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard. ladies and gentlemen, i want you to take a step back, put the flag salute issue on the back step for a moment. barnette also stands for something very big, very different from just the flag salute issue. in the gobitis decision, justice frankfurter had argued strenuously that government had the right to compel the flag salute, and when government obligated people to do
something, people should obey. his thought was that this was required in order to save the unanimity of the government, but as was said in the barnette decision, the very purpose of the bill of rights is to withdraw a subject from political controversy. the basic point being that the court did stand in the place to protect individual rights, so the shift was, under frankfurter, if you do not like what the law is, vote in a new legislature, because the legislature should change things. the barnette case said, wait a minute, minorities will never be able to win an election, will never be able to protect themselves in the legislature. this is what phil donahue said earlier. it is up to the court to protect religious freedom.
the reaction to the barnette decision, as you know, was uniformly positive. the christian century said this, this court had cleared of a whole range of cases involving freedom of conscience. all of them an outgrowth of the activities of jehovah's witnesses. the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty have been affirmed. you know when you have an occasion like this, you tend to overstate things, and you might even think well, this program was really excellent, but really, didn't they kind of go over the top with what they were saying? let me tell you categorically, the legal scholars recognize barnette as the single most important decision of the supreme court. for example, professor sunstein of harvard said this. he was supposed to select the five most important supreme court decisions, and of the five, he said if we had to preserve just one supreme court opinion, to show some other civilization what american constitutional laws are about, i would pick the barnette case. he was not alone. professor hertzke said this, "i
would deem it without question the most important case in supreme court history. a fixed star in the constitutional government." let me go back to my third question. what does all of this have to do with you, particularly if you are not jehovah's witnesses? without any kind of pride, to say what history brings up, jehovah's witnesses have stood up at important times in the history of the united states to fight for their rights in and in so doing, they guaranteed rights for all americans, but before concluding, i want to make two sobering points. i really hope you take this to heart. the point is that fundamental freedoms can be won, and fundamental freedoms can be lost. the second point, the battle
continues. can i underline that? the battle continues. for example, when barnette was decided, a wonderful case, as a result of barnette, the supreme courts in argentina, canada, costa rica, ghana, the philippines, and rwanda all followed barnette, and all ruled in favor of schoolchildren in those countries. for example, in canada in 1945, witness children before the canada supreme court ruled in favor of them had been sent to foster homes, and some witness parents were sentenced to jail. in argentina in 1979, the supreme court handed down a decision exonerating in favor of jehovah's witnesses for their refusal to salute the flag. you know what is interesting? at the time the argentina supreme court handed down the decision, the worship was under ban, so even though it was illegal to be jehovah's witnesses, if you happen to be one of the jehovah's witnesses,
state cannot obligate you to salute a flag. that case not only resulted in a favorable ruling for alejandro wilma but over 1000 other jehovah's witnesses who were facing trial in argentina because of their beliefs. i will wrap up, and i really hope you listen to me. there are 8.5 million jehovah's witnesses around the world, and it is not easy being one of the jehovah's witnesses. there are 230 jehovah's witnesses in prison right now. 53 are in jail in eritrea, three of them for over 25 years. but there are also jehovah's witnesses in jail, 117, and south korea, nine in singapore, over 40 in russia, and 11 in turkmenistan. i want to wrap up and tell you about jehovah's witnesses in russia, because this is what i am talking about when i say the battle continues.
there are 175,000 jehovah's witnesses in russia. many are third and fourth generation witnesses. records confirm that jehovah's witnesses started worshiping in russia in 1891. they had legal status for a while until the russian revolution in 1917, and they were under ban. from then on, 1917 until 1991, to be one of jehovah's witnesses meant that you could go to a communist gulag like this. literally tens of thousands of jehovah's witnesses lived their lives in siberia because they refuse to relent in their faith. in 1991, with the collapse of the soviet union, jehovah's witnesses gained legal status again. during this period, there was a peaceful era for a while for jehovah's witnesses. but the orthodox church went after jehovah's witnesses, and
the soviet authorities back to the orthodox church. as a result, in 2017, jehovah's witnesses were once again banned. let's pause for a moment. the russian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, so how do you ban 170,000 people? it starts with this, the literature they have is extremist, because it says you have to obey the bible, and some of the things in the bible the government does not agree with. does that sound familiar? does the finnish mystery come to mind? what happened in the united states is the same thing happening in russia today. those who would distribute the literature were declared extremist. by the way, when i say extremist, on that list is al qaeda. so the russian authorities equate being one of jehovah's witnesses, to being a member of al qaeda. if you gather to read this
fascist regime in the military rhetoric and the militarization of society, so in a way they were persecuted for not being extremists. so when i hear we are persecuted in russia for being extremists, it impresses me as something quite ridiculous for jehovah's witnesses. aleksandr: many of these repressive mechanisms are invented not for a specific group but for some other threat, not religious but political. and often later they are applied in quite unexpected ways. >> i never met one single expert that is not agree with what russia is doing to jehovah's witnesses is illegal on the basis of the international convention of russia subscribed. aleksandr: so that means that all of us, at least the adult jehovah's witnesses, may potentially be criminally prosecuted.
there is not a single democratic country with this kind of mechanism. [applause] philip: so this is sobering. you wake up thinking that fundamental freedoms exist and always will. this is happening to the largest religious minority in russia as we speak, so when we get back to that point, jehovah's witnesses, canaries in the coal mine of human rights, if the global community does not stand up for jehovah's witnesses in russia, what will happen to the rights of others in russia? if the rights of jehovah's witnesses are undermined in russia, what about the rights of others? as you think about what you have
heard today, the wonderful decision of barnette, please do not put this down as an interesting historic fact, something that does not have a lot of relevance in your life. it actually has quite a lot of relevance in your life. because as we mentioned, the battle continues. [applause] >> this is american history tv on c-span3, where each weekend we feature 48 hours of programs exploring our nation's past. check out our website at c-span.org/history. this year, c-span is touring cities across the country, exploring american history. next, a look at our recent visit to california. you are watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend on c-span3.