The Jehovah’s Witnesses are native to the United States with roots dating back to the teachings of Charles Taze Russell, a minister in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1870s. The organization does not advertise in the media and strives to remain separate from most popular culture. Still, the members’ passionate proselytizing and a few controversial doctrines have put the group in the spotlight. As a result, the Witnesses have left an imprint in American culture.
Many court cases brought by Jehovah's Witnesses have set precedents for protection of religious freedoms in the U.S. In fact the 28 cases brought by Jehovah's Witnesses between 1938 and 1946 prompted Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone to comment that “Jehovah’s Witnesses ought to have an endowment in view of the aid which they give in solving the legal problems of civil liberties.” One of these was the 1940 case of Minersville School District vs Gobitis in which the court first ruled that the liberties of Lillian and William Gobitis were not infringed when they were expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag on religious grounds. Significantly, in 1943, the court reversed that decision in West Virginia State Board of Education vs Barnette, ruling 6 to 3 that the compulsory flag salute for public schoolchildren did violate Barnette's First Amendment rights. These cases continue to influence court rulings. According to USA Today, Judge Vaughn Walker cited Virginia State Board vs Barnette in striking down California's Proposition 8 -- Marriage Protection Act -- passed in 2008.
Freedom of Speech
Jehovah’s Witnesses' legal battles extended to their right to proselytize, which they do door to door or by talking to people on the street. In 1940, the Supreme Court heard the Cantwell vs. State of Connecticut case, after Jesse Cantwell and his son were arrested for street preaching without a solicitation permit and for delivering a message that, according to two pedestrians, incited a breach of the peace. The court held that regulations on solicitation do not apply to religious messages. It also decided that the Cantwells’ message did not intend to hurt anyone, was not threatening the peace and was protected religious speech.
Because Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions, they spearheaded bloodless surgery techniques in hospitals. Pennsylvania Hospital, for example, according to an NBC News report, has offered bloodless procedures to Jehovah's Witnesses for at least 15 years, and in the past decade has seen enough "advances in equipment and changes in protocols" to be able to offer "bloodless surgery" to the general public, joining a growing number of hospitals around the country willing to do the same.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reach people with their message solely through their door to door work, which is so consistent and insistent that it has become part of the fabric of life. It is not strange to hear a late night host make light of the activity during a monologue, and there are multiple mentions of it on TV shows, like "The Simpsons." Because it remains a controversial doctrine, the Witnesses' refusal of blood has been the subject of several television dramas, including a 2013 episode of "Grey’s Anatomy" entitled “Bad Blood.”
- Cesnur.org: "USA Today Emphatically Hails Jehovah's Witnesses Legal History for 'Rich Contribution to Freedom'"
- USAToday.com: "How Jehovah's Witnesses Helped Kill Prop 8"
- NBCnews.com: "'Bloodless' Surgery Avoids Risks of Transfusion"
- JWFacts.com: "Famous Active and Former Jehovah's Witnesses"
- RiligiMedia: Good job with “Bad Blood”: Grey’s Anatomy and Jehovah’s Witnesses
- The Simpsons Archive: Religion on The Simpsons
- Stockbyte/Retrofile/Getty Images