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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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30-60 minutes
  • Constitution
  • Religious Liberty
  • Supreme Court
  • 9-12
  • College/University

Can a religious group proselytize and criticize another religion when seeking new followers?

On a Sunday in April in 1938, Jehovah’s Witnesses Newton Cantwell and his sons, Jesse and Russell, travel to a largely Catholic neighborhood in New Haven, Conn. They bring pamphlets, books and portable record players to spread the word about their religion.

A group of men on the street agree to listen to one of the records. In the recording, the leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses harshly criticizes Roman Catholicism. He calls the Catholic Church an “instrument of Satan” and says that it “robs the people of their money and destroys their peace of mind and freedom of action.” The listeners, who are Catholic, are offended. They tell the Cantwells to go away, and they later testify that they might have punched the Cantwells if the police had not arrived.

The Cantwells are arrested and charged with violating a local law that requires a permit to solicit for religious causes and with causing a breach of the peace by offending their listeners and provoking an angry response. This street-corner confrontation sparks a lawsuit that rises all the way to the Supreme Court.

Take the role of a historical figure below and find evidence to argue your case.

  1. Jehovah's Witnesses Attorney Hayden Covington
    Hayden Covington was the main legal counsel for the Jehovah's Witnesses from 1939 to 1963. The first major case he worked on was Minersville School District v. Gobitis.
    Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania

    Hayden Covington, lawyer representing the Cantwells

    The First Amendment allows the Cantwells to share all of their beliefs, including their distrust of Roman Catholicism. Those who are not interested do not have to stop and listen, and they can walk away at any time.

  2. Men listening to the Cantwell record

    Jehovah’s Witnesses such as the Cantwells should not be allowed to broadcast a message that accuses another religion of being evil. The message is insulting and should never have been brought into our neighborhood. They are lucky we didn’t respond violently to their attack on our faith.

  3. Connecticut Attroney Francis A. Pallotti
    This photograph shows Francis A. Pallotti in 1918.
    Courtesy Connecticut Digital Archives Collection

    Francis Pallotti, lawyer representing the state of Connecticut

    The controversial messages that the Cantwells shared on the streets of New Haven have the potential to cause conflicts between our citizens, possibly even sparking violent confrontations. It is our duty as a state to keep the peace, and therefore we must regulate the types of messages being shared on our streets.

    "No person shall solicit money, services, subscriptions or any valuable thing for any alleged religious, charitable or philanthropic cause … unless such cause shall have been approved by the secretary of the public welfare council."

    — Text from the Connecticut statute requiring a license for religious solicitation
  4. Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts
    Justice Owen Roberts served on the Supreme Court from 1930 to 1945.

    Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts

    Although the Cantwells’s message was offensive to some individuals, it did not cause any actual harm, and these types of conflicts of beliefs will always arise in our diverse nation. States as well as the federal government have a duty to uphold the First Amendment by limiting their regulation of religious freedom to the bare minimum.

    "The people of this nation have ordained ... that, in spite of the probability 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.”

    — Opinion in Cantwell v. Connecticut

  • People disagree on many issues. Should groups be prohibited from publicly sharing information others dislike?
  • Did the Cantwells harm those hearing their message? Did they harm Roman Catholicism? Can speech cause harm?
  • Were the Catholic residents forced to listen to the Cantwells's message?
  • What does it mean to disturb the peace? Can sharing your beliefs, if offensive to some, disturb the peace?
  • How are beliefs different than actions? Can one’s actions prevent them from publicly sharing their beliefs?

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