If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton draws inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt the same way she famously did as First Lady, maybe Clinton will speak out against the blow to the freedoms of press, speech and religion dealt by the Russian Supreme Court this week. Russia’s highest court upheld a regional ruling that outlaws Jehovah’s Witnesses from gathering to worship and sharing their beliefs with others. Dozens of the religion’s publications were banned as “extremist” – including its Watchtower magazine and a children’s book of Bible stories.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States were losing their First Amendment freedoms in the 1940s, when Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady. Witnesses were jailed when they preached, fired from jobs and their children expelled from public schools. But Roosevelt publicly defended the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses despite their widely unpopular views. She urged calm when Witnesses were attacked by mobs in more than 40 states. What Eleanor Roosevelt understood is the canary-in-a-coal-mine effect: Jehovah’s Witnesses were the canary and the First Amendment was at stake. If one group’s speech is snuffed out on the whims of whoever has the most power or popularity, then a toxic environment is left behind that can quickly suffocate any unpopular group that follows.
In 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court acted no differently than today’s Russian court when it ruled against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then, the Witnesses were considered a dangerous and subversive element to the state. They didn’t want to salute the flag, saying that kind of allegiance is only for God, and God was not American (German Witnesses were refusing the Nazi salute at the same time, for the same reason, and were put in concentration camps for it). The U.S. Supreme Court’s response in Minersville v. Gobitis was a shocking decision that said a free society could force its citizens to engage in patriotic ritual.
Jehovah’s Witnesses disobeyed the ruling and mob violence ensued. That’s when Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out. By 1943, at the height of World War II, the Supreme Court acknowledged it had made a mistake when it said nationalism could be coerced by the state. In West Virginia v. Barnette, the justices reversed their previous decision, issuing it on Flag Day.
The Supreme Court came to know Jehovah’s Witnesses very well. The Witnesses have won a record 50 cases that expanded freedom for everyone — even groups they disagree with. The precedents set by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940s helped pioneer the modern civil rights movement for other unpopular groups who sought Constitutional equality: women, people of color, gays and lesbians. Had Eleanor Roosevelt not spoken out in defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses and had the Witnesses been smothered in the First Amendment coal mine early on, how much free speech would have existed for the unpopular groups that followed?
The Russians may find the practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses as annoying as Americans do. But a little door-knocking is a necessary annoyance to live in a free society. Without that freedom, what happens when Russian citizens want to circulate a neighborhood petition against government malfeasance, or say something critical of Vladimir Putin?
Some argue Jehovah’s Witnesses do not deserve fair treatment since they don’t embrace total free speech or equality within their own membership: gay marriage is forbidden, women are not allowed to be religious leaders or teach congregants, members who insist on breaking the moral code or changing doctrine are subject to expulsion and shunning. Yet a number of major world religions follow the same policies. What if a free and democratic nation, as Russia claims to be, banned the Catholic Church?
A true democracy allows for freedom of all religions, even if a religion appears oppressive by the standard of outsiders. In a free society, people get to choose how or whether they want to worship. A religion will thrive or wither based on popular demand. In the United States, there are 1.1 million people who accept the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses (0.3 percent of the population). In Russia, 160,000 have chosen to join the faith. The market will determine a religion’s membership. It’s not up to the government to say which religion is good or bad.
The same goes for speech. Unpopular words in Alabama (“gay pride”) require the same Constitutional protection as what’s unpopular in San Francisco (“homosexuality is sin”). In the end, the truth will prevail. It always does. But getting to the truth can be fraught with peril when a government decides to suffocate ideas before they can get a fair hearing. This is why it would be good for Hillary Clinton to channel a bit of Eleanor Roosevelt when it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
Joel Engardio directed the award-winning PBS documentary KNOCKING about Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is a writer, filmmaker and civil liberties advocate. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today and on NPR and PBS. Engardio currently helps the American Civil Liberties Union communicate its message and issues through online video.