October 4, 2022

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the legality of their faith

The faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses came into limelight when the famous national anthem case arose. In that case, the three children, Bijoe, Binu Mol and Bindu Emmanuel of Jehovah’s Witnesses did not sing national anthem in morning assembly of school. However, they used to stand respectfully during national anthem.

According to them, it was against the tenets of their religious faith-not the words or the thoughts of the Anthem but the singing of it.

When the case came before the supreme court, the court examined the aspects of the faith of Jehovah’s witness and also noted other cases those were emerged in different countries due to their beliefs.

Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses and their peculiar beliefs though little noticed in this country, have been noticed, we find, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and have been the subject of judicial pronouncements elsewhere.

In ‘The New Encyclopaedia Britannica’ (Macropaedia) Vol. 10 page 538, after mentioning that Jehovah’s Witnesses are

“the adherents of the apocalyptic sect organized by Charles Taze Russell in the early 1870”, it is further mentioned, “… They believe that the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, their legal agency and publishing arm, exemplifies the will of God and proclaims the truths of the Bible against the evil triumvirate of organized religion, the business world, and the state … …….

…. The Witnesses also stand apart from civil society, refusing to vote, run for public office, serve in any armed forces, salute the flag, stand for the National Anthem, or recite the pledge of allegiance. Their religious stands have brought clashes with various governments, resulting in law suits, mob violence, imprisonment, torture, and death.

At one time more than 6,000 Witnesses were inmates of Nazi concentration camps, Communist and Fascist States usually forbid Watch Tower activities. In the U.S. the society has taken 45 cases to the Supreme Court and has won significant victories for freedom of religion and speech. The Witnesses have been less successful in claiming exemptions as ministers from military service and in seeking to withhold blood transfusions from their children.”

Cases on Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the world

1.      Australia- Why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not participate in Political Affairs

Some of the beliefs held by Jehovah’s Witnesses are mentioned in a little detail in the statement of case in Adelaide Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. The Commonwealth, a case decided by the Australian High Court.

The case of Adelaide Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. The Commonwealth (supra) arose out of an action to restrain the Commonwealth of Australia from enforcing the National Security (Subversive Associations) Regulations to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It is stated,

“Jehovah’s Witnesses are an association of persons loosely organised throughout Australia and elsewhere who regard the literal interpretation of the Bible as Fundamental to proper religious beliefs.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that God, Jehovah, is the Supreme ruler of the universe. Satan or Lucifer was originally part of God’s organization and the perfect man was placed under him. He rebelled against God and set up his own organization in challenge to God and through that organization had ruled the world. He rules and controls the world through material agencies such as organized political, religious, and financial bodies.

Christ, they believe, came to earth to redeem all men who would devote themselves entirely to serving God’s will and purpose and He will come to earth again (His second coming has already begun) and will over-throw all the powers of evil.”

“These beliefs lead Jehovah’s Witnesses to proclaim and teach publicly both orally and by means of printed books and pamphlets that the British Empire and also other organized political bodies are organs of Satan, unrighteously governed and identifiable with the Beast in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation.

Also that Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians entirely devoted to the Kingdom of God, which is “The Theocracy” that they have no part in the political affairs of the world and must not interfere in the least manner with war between nations. They must be entirely neutral and not interfere with the drafting of men of nations they go to war.

And also that wherever there is a conflict between the laws of Almighty God and the Laws of man the Christian must always obey God’s law in preference to man’s law. All laws of men, however, in harmony with God’s law the Christian obeys. God’s law is expounded and taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Accordingly, they refuse to take an oath of allegiance to the King or other constituted human authority.”

2.      United States of America- Why Jehovah’s witnesses do not salute the flag

Minersville School District v. Gobitis[1], and West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[2], are two cases decided by the American Supreme Court in which Jehovah’s witnesses claimed that they could not be compelled to salute the flag of the United States while reciting pledge of allegiance.

In the latter case, Jackson, J. referred to the particular belief of the Witnesses which was the subject matter of that case, as follows:

“The Witnesses are an unincorporated body teaching that the obligation imposed by law of God is superior to that of laws enacted by temporal government. Their religious beliefs include a literal version of Exodus, Chapter XX, verses 4 and 5, which says “Thou shall not make upto the any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”

They consider that the flag is an “image” within this command. For this reason, they refuse to salute.

3.      Canada- Why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not sing National Anthem?

Donald v. The Board of Education for the City Hamilton[3] is a case decided by the Court of Appeals of Ontario where the objection by Jehovah’s Witnesses was to saluting the flag and singing National Anthem. The Court referred to the following belief of the Jehovah’s Witnesses:

“The appellants, father and sons, are affiliated with “Jehovah’s Witnesses” and believe that saluting the flag and joining in the singing of the national anthem are both contrary to and forbidden by command of Scripture-the former because they consider the flag an “image” within the literal meaning of Exodus, Chapter XX verses 4 and 5, and the latter because, while they respect the King and the State, the prayer voiced in this anthem is not compatible with the belief and hope which they hold in the early coming of the new world, in the government of which present temporal states can have no part.”

Sheldon v. Fannin,[4] is a case decided by the United States District Court of Arizona also arose out of the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to stand when the National Anthem was sung. The Court observed: “This refusal to participate, even to the extent of standing, without singing, is said to have been dictated by their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses, requiring their literal acceptance of the Bible as they Word of Almighty God Jehovah.

Both precedent and authority for their refusal to stand is claimed to be found in the refusal of three Hebrew children Shadrach, Meshach and Abednege, to bow down at the sound of musical instruments playing patriotic- religious music throughout the land at the order of King Nebuchadnezzar of ancient Babylon. (Daniel 3: 1328)

For a similar reason, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect refuse to recite this Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States viewing this patriotic ceremony to be the worship of a graven image. (Exodus 20: 4-5). However, by some process of reasoning we need not tarry to explore, they are willing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, out of respect for the Flag as a symbol of the religious freedom they enjoy.”

Sheldon v. Fannin (supra) was a case where the pupils refused even to stand when the National Anthem was sung.

4.      India

As we also stated earlier in introductory part, the case related to the faith of Jehovah’s witnesses came before supreme court in Bijoe Emmanuel vs State Of Kerala[5]. The question before the court was whether the practice of Jehovah’s witnesses protected under Article 19 and 25 of the constitution?

The court upheld the practice and said that,

“We are satisfied, in the present case, that the expulsion of the three children from the school for the reason that because of their conscientiously held religious faith, they do not join the singing of the national anthem in the morning assembly though they do stand-up respectfully when the anthem is sung, is a violation of their fundamental right to freedom of conscience and freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”

(for detailed story of the case, click here)

Reference

Bijoe Emmanuel vs State of Kerala; 1987 AIR 748, 1986 SCR (3) 518


[1] 84 Law. Ed. US 1375

[2] 87 Law Ed. 1628

[3] 1945 Ontario Reports 518

[4] 221 Federal Supp. 766

[5] 1987 AIR 748