Jehovah’s Witnesses: Champions of religious freedom

Russia has criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses, labeling them as “extremist,” detaining members and raiding their homes. But this community of believers has a long history of supporting the freedom of religion elsewhere in the world, like the United States. Although their religious views can be controversial, Jehovah’s Witnesses are peaceful people of faith.

Who is a Witness?

Born from the Christian revivalist movement in 19th-century America, Jehovah’s Witnesses adhere to a unique interpretation of the Bible. They reject the Holy Trinity and believe in the singular rule of God, whom they call Jehovah.

They teach that all man-made institutions, including governments and organized religion, are inherently corrupt. For this reason, they decline political activities such as voting, military service and making oaths. They also do not believe in blood transfusions.

Congregations can be insular, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to spend several hours each month sharing their faith by “door-knocking,” or handing out pamphlets.

Man bending over another man sitting in tub of water (© Angela Wylie/Fairfax Media/Getty Images)
A man prepares for baptism by full-body immersion at the International Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Melbourne, Australia. (© Angela Wylie/Fairfax Media/Getty Images)

The United States is home to the largest population of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria and Japan also have sizable Witness communities. They support each other by sending aid after natural disasters and organizing legal campaigns for persecuted Witnesses.

“We are people from all backgrounds who want to be good citizens and who share the same concerns and hopes everyone has,” says Robert Zick, spokesperson for the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Religious liberty

Jehovah’s Witnesses brought a number of landmark cases to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 20th century. These trials tested and strengthened America’s First Amendment laws protecting the freedoms of expression, belief and assembly.

Witnesses were brought to court for being “difficult people,” says Sally Gordon, professor of history and constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania. They have unconventional beliefs they are compelled to share with non-believers who may feel annoyed or insulted by their efforts.

“But there’s a difference between being annoyed with someone and beating them up,” says Gordon.

In 1940, a Witness named Jesse Cantwell upset two men so much with his door-knocking that they “were tempted to strike him.” Instead, they had him arrested for disturbing the peace and not having a permit. The Supreme Court ruled that this violated Cantwell’s First Amendment rights.

Cantwell v. Connecticut decided governments cannot define religious belief nor religious practice. It also found that, no matter how offensive the person’s views may be, it is against their rights to silence that person if their speech does not incite riotous, violent behavior.

The Court referred to its ruling in support of the “peaceful expression of unpopular views” established by Cantwell in 1940 to settle future landmark civil rights cases. From African Americans’ right to peacefully protest segregation to students’ right to silently condemn the Vietnam War, the Jehovah’s Witnesses cases have benefited millions of Americans’ right to express their beliefs.

“These people are not violent. They may be saying unpleasant things, but they have a right to confront government and to challenge it,” says Gordon.

Prisoners of conscience

Experts say that, historically, the persecution or protection of Jehovah’s Witnesses is seen as a test for how societies and the institutions that govern them will treat other faith communities.

More than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses are now facing criminal prosecution in Russia, according to Forum 18, a Norway-based human rights organization that promotes religious freedom. In April 2017, Russia banned the religion and called it an “extremist organization.”

People sitting at a table writing letters with paper and on computers (Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses)
Jehovah’s Witnesses gathered around the world on March 21, 2017, to write letters appealing to the Russian government not to ban their religion. (Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses)

Russia’s legal definition of extremism is vague, and has been interpreted by Russian courts to encompass Witness practices like conscientious objection to war and refusing medical treatment on religious grounds.

“The Russian government is tightening the strings on people’s ability to be free and believe what they want,” says Stacy Davis from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

Russia’s 2016 “Yarovaya amendments” place widespread restrictions on evangelizing. Several Witnesses have been arrested for hosting Bible studies in their homes.

Davis says Witnesses are just one targeted minority religion in Russia. There are 108 prisoners of conscience in Russia as of July 2018, according to the Russian human rights group Memorial.