In Niemotko v. Maryland, 340 U.S. 268 (1951), the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the disorderly conduct conviction of members of a religious group because they held a Bible study in a park without a permit. The Court found that the conviction was a denial of the First Amendment right to exercise free speech and religion and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection.

Jehovah's Witnesses were fined for using a park for a Bible study

A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Niemotko, had peacefully used a public park in Havre de Grace, Maryland, for Bible study after the park commissioner and the city council had denied them a permit. They had been convicted on the charge of disorderly conduct and fined. After Maryland courts declined to review the case, the Supreme Court accepted the case, which it decided in conjunction with Kunz v. New York, involving the renewal of permits for preaching on city streets.

Court said city permit decisions were without standard; struck down conviction

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson stressed that the city did not have a formal statute in place governing permits. Decisions by the park commissioner and city council were without standard. The hearing showed no basis for the denial of the permit other than public officials’ “dislike for or disagreement with the Witnesses or their views.” Vinson concluded that the law denied “[t]he right to equal protection of the laws, in the exercise of those freedoms of speech and religion protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Felix Frankfurter compared this decision to others involving public streets, door-to-door solicitation, the sale of religious literature, public parks, sound trucks, and breaches of the peace. He stressed that there was no evidence that the gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this case breached the peace and warned about the danger that “arbitrary action” posed to First Amendment freedoms.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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