By Joel P. Engardio
Will anyone thank Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses for helping gay and lesbian couples win the right to marry?
Everyone knows Mormons took a lot of abuse for helping pass Proposition 8, the amendment that banned same-sex marriage in California. But few realize how Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses, that other door-knocking and gay-is-sin religion, played a key role in getting Prop 8 declared unconstitutional.
By the time you read this in print, or soon after, weâ€™ll know whether gays can start getting married again in California. If the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear the Prop 8 case ruled by a lower federal court, then weâ€™ll be hearing wedding bells in a matter of days. But if the high court wants to decide the issue itself, weâ€™ll have to wait until next June for a walk down the aisle.
Either way, Prop 8 looks headed for history book shame. How then, did the most unlikely of groups -- Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses -- help kill it?
One of the biggest outcries over Prop 8 was that the fundamental rights of a minority group could be taken away by popular vote, which isnâ€™t supposed to happen in America, land of the free.
Vaughn R. Walker, the federal judge who first struck down Prop 8 in 2010, boldly said it â€śwas premised on the belief that same-sex couples simply are not as good as opposite-sex couples.â€ť He also minced no words with the electorate: â€śThat the majority of California voters supported Proposition 8 is irrelevant.â€ť
This is where Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses come in. On page 116 of Judge Walkerâ€™s ruling, he cites a 1943 Supreme Court case where the high court did a rare reversal of itself, acknowledging a mistake it made in a Jehovahâ€™s Witness case three years earlier. What happened between 1940 and 1943 to Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses gave Judge Walker in 2010 his most potent precedent to show that voter will does not trump the protection of minority rights.
In the 1940s, Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses werenâ€™t just unpopular and marginalized. They were seen as criminal and a threat to democracy. It was blasphemous enough that they preached there was no hell or trinity and went knocking on doors to say so. But they also refused to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Lillian Gobitas was among thousands of Jehovahâ€™s Witness children expelled from public school for not saluting the flag. Her case went to the Supreme Court and a fundamental question was asked: Should a free society force its citizens to engage in patriotic ritual? In 1940, the court said yes. National unity was at stake.
But Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses wouldnâ€™t comply, saying the flag salute is an idolatrous act of worship of a man-made symbol, which is forbidden by God. In response, mobs attacked Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses in 44 states, burned their houses of worship and beat them. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out against the violence. At the height of World War II, when the U.S. was fighting nationalism in Germany and German Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses were being put into concentration camps for refusing to do the Nazi salute, the Supreme Court revisited the case. A stunning reversal was announced June 14, 1943 â€“ Flag Day.
In 2010, the value Judge Walker saw in the Jehovahâ€™s Witness case was how Justice Robert H. Jackson in 1943 addressed the â€śtyranny of the majority,â€ť a problem thatâ€™s been around since at least 1835 when Alexis de Tocqueville first wrote the phrase in his book â€śDemocracy in America.â€ť
The 1940 Supreme Court used â€śnational unityâ€ť to justify forcing kids to salute the flag. It also said the threat of being expelled from school was a good way to achieve compliance. If anyone felt put out, the court said, they could seek remedy at the ballot box by asking the majority to see it their way.
When Justice Jackson got the chance to reverse the 1940 ruling, he tackled the ballot box notion head on. He wrote that the â€śvery purposeâ€ť of the Bill of Rights was to protect some issues from the volatility of politics and â€śplace them beyond the reach of majorities.â€ť
â€śOneâ€™s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly,â€ť Jackson said, â€śmay not be submitted to vote.â€ť
Judge Walker used Jacksonâ€™s line in striking down the 52 percent majority vote that had taken away the fundamental right of gay and lesbian couples to marry in California.
While we can thank Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses for this precedent that aims to prevent tyranny of the majority, it should be noted they donâ€™t like gay marriage. They consider it sin and arenâ€™t afraid to say so. But not one Jehovahâ€™s Witness voted for or supported Prop 8. Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses are apolitical. Rather than forcing their beliefs through legislation, they prefer to find converts by sharing a message.
I know this personally. I come from an extended Italian Catholic family. But my mom became one of Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses when I was young.
She took me door knocking all over town, offering Watchtower magazines and Bible messages. I broke my momâ€™s heart twice, first by not joining her religion and then by coming out as gay. While Iâ€™m sad my mom wonâ€™t attend my wedding because of her religious beliefs, I respect her right to have them and am relieved that her religion isnâ€™t doing anything to stop me from getting married. I wish all religions behaved this way.
I made a PBS documentary about Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses called â€śKnocking.â€ť It featured the Supreme Court case that would eventually help me gain the right to marry. The central theme of my film was how protecting the rights of one unpopular group demonstrates the beauty and full potential of the Bill of Rights for every unpopular group to follow.
â€śFundamental rights,â€ť Justice Jackson wrote in 1943 and Judge Walker quoted in 2010, â€śdepend on the outcome of no elections.â€ť
Joel P. Engardio is running for District 7 Supervisor in San Francisco. This essay is adapted from a piece Engardio wrote for USA Today. His website is www.engardio.com