Prince v. Com. of Massachusetts
321 US 158 (Decided January 31, 1944)
After handing down one more Jehovah's Witness case on June 14, 1943, in which the convictions of three Witnesses in Mississippi for encouraging "disloyalty to the government of the United States" by distributing literature tending to create an attitude of refusal to salute the flag" were reversed (Taylor v. Mississippi, 319 US 583) , the Court waded into the thicket once more in the next year to deal with the question of whether allowing of a minor girl to sell Jehovah's Witness publications violated a Massachusetts child labor statute. The Court held, 5-4, that because the state's power to control the conduct of children exceeds that of its authority over adults, the child welfare statutes were not unconstitutional as applied to the child in this case.
I framed the holding somewhat elusively because three of the dissenters (Justices Jackson, Roberts and Frankfurter) agreed with the result but could not concur in the judgment because the grounds on which they thought affirmance would rest had been overruled by Murdock.
Massachusetts had a statute prohibiting boys under 12 and girls under 18 from selling newpapers, magazines or any other publication in any street or public place. In addition, the statute further provided that if any adult furnished these materials for sale to a minor (sec 80) and permitted the minor to work in violation of the law (sec 81), they should be fined or imprisoned according to the statute. Betty Simmons, a nine year old Jehovah's Witness girl, sold materials at the behest of her aunt. The aunt was convicted at trial for furnishing Betty with magazines and permitting her to work at selling them. Her conviction was upheld by the Supreme Judicial Court. The issue that came to the Supreme Court was whether sections 80 and 81 of the statute as applied contravened the Fourteenth Amendment by denying or abriding the aunt's freedom of religion and equal protection of the laws.
The Supreme Court's Legal Analysis
Writing for the majority, Justice Rutledge stated that two claimed liberties were at stake. One is the parent's--to bring up the child in the way he should go and the other is the child's--to observe the principles of his or her faith, among which principles is to preach the gospel by public distribution of the Watchtower and Consolation, two Witness publications. He recognized that the rights of children to exercise their religion and for parents to given them religious training had been recognized expressly by the Court since the Pierce case in 1925. Against this freedom was another legal principle: "the family itself is not beyond regulation in the public interest, as against a claim of religious liberty." The right of the parent to practice religion does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable diseases or ill health, for example.
Therefore, the proper legal question was whether this case provided an instance where the state's authority over children was broader than it was over adults. Indeed, when children were out on the highways preaching or handing out literature, they were exposed to dangers that they would not face in other circumstances. Did the presence of an adult with the child then nullify or so minimize that danger that that the state had no additional interest in the child? The Court said, "No." Harmful effects might flow on the child; indeed "parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free...to make martyrs of their children...."
Justice Frank Murphy dissented and would have held that the burdent was on the state of Massachusetts to prove the reasonableness and necesssity of prohibiting children from engaging in the religious activity involved in this case. Because the statute had to do with religious freedoms, the Court was not aided by any strong presumption of the constitutionality of such legislation (citing fn 4 of the Carolene Products case, 304 US 144). The State failed to prove, in his opinion, the existence of any grave or immediate danger to any interest which it might lawfully protect in the preaching/literature distribution of a 9 year-old girl.
The other dissenters would have used the "pre-Murdock" analysis to differentiate between immune religious activities and secular activities and then weigh whether the activity in question was a religious or secular one. In this case, they would have held that literature sale/distribution was a secular activity that could be regulated by the state and that, therefore, the statute should be upheld.
However, they were troubled by the precedent in Murdock, where Justice Douglas, speaking for the Court, held street preaching and distribution of literature for the Witnesses was worship as much for them as were sanctuary worship services for other groups. Thus, to uphold the conviction of Prince would mean that they would support the Court's (and the law's) intervention into the "worship" of religious groups. This they could not do, and were forced to dissent, despite the fact that they would have affirmed the judgment of the Massachusetts court and despite the fact that the Supreme Court had so affirmed that judgment. Their conclusion can be briefly stated in Justice Jackson's colorful prose: "All such money-raising activities (from Bingo to sales of books) on a public scale are, I think Caesar's affairs and may be regulated by the state so long as it does not discriminate against one because he is doing them for a religious purpose...."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long