Cantwell v. Connecticut

Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) was a U.S. Supreme Court case involving door-to-door religious solicitations. In a dispute that would have a major impact on the role of religion in public education, the Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, rendering the states subject to the same restrictions regarding religion that are placed on Congress.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs, Newton, Jesse, and Russell Cantwell, were Jehovah’s Witnesses who were arrested in Connecticut for violating a state statute that required that religious solicitors register with the secretary of the public welfare council. The Cantwells were arrested as they were going door to door with religious pamphlets, records, and a record player. Each record contained a description of a book, one of which was entitled Enemies, a tome that included an attack on the Roman Catholic religion. Two men who listened to this record became so incensed they were tempted to strike Jesse Cantwell, although they were able to refrain from doing so. The Cantwells were then charged with, and convicted of, inciting others to breach of the peace in addition to violating the licensing statute.

The Cantwells said they did not get a license because they believed their activities were not covered by the statute insofar as they were only distributing pamphlets and books. The Supreme Court of Connecticut was of the opinion that because the Cantwells asked for monetary donations to cover the cost of the pamphlets, this solicitation was enough for their actions to be within the scope of the act. Further, the court pointed out that the legislation was constitutional, because the state was attempting to protect its people against fraud through solicitation of funds purported to be for a charitable or religious purpose. The Cantwells argued that the act violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, because it denied them their rights to religious freedom and to speak freely.

The Court’s Ruling

In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Owen Roberts, the Supreme Court agreed with the Cantwells. The Court maintained that the First Amendment prohibited Congress from making laws regarding religion or preventing free exercise of any religion and that the Fourteenth Amendment placed the same prohibitions on state legislatures. The Court explained that the First Amendment embraces two concepts: It gives citizens both the right to believe and the right to act. While the first is absolute, the second, the Court observed, is subject to regulations to protect society. According to the Court, states may make laws regulating the time, place, and manner of solicitations, but they may not enact legislation that wholly prohibits individuals from their right to preach their religious views. To the extent that the act required individuals to apply for certificates to engage in solicitations and were expressly forbidden from doing so without such certificates, the Court reasoned that the law went too far in regulating religious solicitations.

The Supreme Court also took issue with the fact that religious solicitors were required to apply to the secretary of the public welfare council. The Court held that this requirement went too far, because it allowed one person to determine whether something was a religious cause. The Court noted the possibility that a corrupt secretary could further hinder the rights of those who wished to conduct religious solicitations. Insofar as the secretary was allowed to examine facts and use his own judgment, rather than simply issue certificates to anyone who applied for one, the Court concluded that the process amounted to censorship in violation of the First Amendment as it applied within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Megan L. Rehberg

See also First Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment

Legal Citations