Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 8212 487

Decision Date03 May 1943
Docket NumberNos. 480,s. 480
Citation87 L.Ed. 1292,63 S.Ct. 870,319 U.S. 105,146 A.L.R. 81
PartiesMURDOCK v. COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA and seven other cases. —487
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Hayden C. Covington, of Brooklyn, N.Y., for petitioners.

Mr. Fred B. Trescher, of Greensburg, Pa., for respondent.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The City of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, has an ordinance, some forty years old, which provides in part:

'That all persons canvassing for or soliciting within said Borough, orders for goods, paintings, pictures, wares, or merchandise of any kind, or persons delivering such articles under orders so obtained or solicited, shall be required to procure from the Burgess a license to transact said business and shall pay to the Treasurer of said Borough therefore the following sums according to the time for which said license shall be granted.

'For one day $1.50, for one week seven dollars ($7.00), for two weeks twelve dollars ($12.00), for three weeks twenty dollars ($20.00), provided that the provisions of this ordinance shall not apply to persons selling by sample to manufacturers or licensed merchants or dealers doing business in said Borough of Jeannette.'

Petitioners are 'Jehovah's Witnesses'. They went about from door to door in the City of Jeannette distributing literature and soliciting people to 'purchase' certain religious books and pamphlets, all published by the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society.1 The 'price' of the books was twenty-five cents each, the 'price' of the pamphlets five cents each.2 In connection with these activities petitioners used a phonograph3 on which they played a record expounding certain of their views on religion. None of them obtained a license under the ordinance. Before they were arrested each had made 'sales' of books. There was evidence that it was their practice in making these solicitations to request a 'contribution' of twenty-five cents each for the books and five cents each for the pamphlets but to accept lesser sums or even to donate the volumes in case an interested person was without funds. In the present case some donations of pamphlets were made when books were purchased. Petitioners were convicted and fined for violation of the ordinance. Their judgments of conviction were sustained by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, 149 Pa.Super. 175, 27 A.2d 666, against their contention that the ordinance deprived them of the freedom of speech, press, and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. Petitions for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania were denied. The cases are here on petitions for writs of certiorari which we granted along with the petitions for rehearing of Jones v. Opelika, 316 U.S. 584, 62 S.Ct. 1231, 86 L.Ed. 1691, 141 A.L.R. 514, and its companion cases.

The First Amendment, which the Fourteenth makes applicable to the states, declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press * * *.' It could hardly be denied that a tax laid specifically on the exercise of those freedoms would be unconstitutional. Yet the license tax imposed by this ordinance is in substance just that.

Petitioners spread their interpretations of the Bible and their religious beliefs largely through the hand distribution of literature by full or part time workers.4 They claim to follow the example of Paul, teaching 'publickly, and from house to house.' Acts 20:20. They take literally the mandate of the Scriptures, 'Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.' Mark 16:15. In doing so they believe that they are obeying a commandment of God.

The hand distribution of religious tracts is an age-old form of missionary evangelism—as old as the history of printing presses.5 It has been a potent force in various religious movements down through the years.6 This form of evangelism is utilized today on a large scale by various religious sects whose colporteurs carry the Gospel to thou- sands upon thousands of homes and seek through personal visitations to win adherents to their faith.7 It is more than preaching; it is more than distribution of religious literature. It is a combination of both. Its purpose is as evangelical as the revival meeting. This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits. It has the same claim to protection as the more orthodox and conventional exercises of religion. It also has the same claim as the others to the guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

The integrity of this conduct or behavior as a religious practice has not been challenged. Nor do we have presented any question as to the sincerity of petitioners in their religious beliefs and practices, however misguided they may be thought to be Moreover, we do not intimate or suggest in respecting their sincerity that any conduct can be made a religious rite and by the zeal of the practitioners swept into the First Amendment. Reynolds v United States, 98 U.S. 145, 161, 167, 25 L.Ed. 244, and Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333, 10 S.Ct. 299, 33 L.Ed. 637, denied any such claim to the practice of polygamy and bigamy. Other claims may well arise which deserve the same fate. We only hold that spreading one's religious beliefs or preaching the Gospel through distribution of religious literature and through personal visitations is an age-old type of evangelism with as high a claim to constitutional protection as the more orthodox types. The manner in which it is practiced at times gives rise to special problems with which the police power of the states is competent to deal. See for example Cox v. New Hampshire 312 U.S. 569, 61 S.Ct. 762, 85 L.Ed. 1049, 133 A.L.R. 1396, and Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031. But that merely illustrates that the rights with which we are dealing are not absolutes. Schneider v. State, 308 U.S. 147, 160, 161, 60 S.Ct. 146, 150, 84 L.Ed. 155. We are concerned, however, in these cases merely with one narrow issue. There is presented for decision no question whatsoever concerning punishment for any alleged unlawful acts during the solicitation. Nor is there involved here any question as to the validity of a registration system for colporteurs and other solicitors. The cases present a single issue—the constitutionality of an ordinance which as construed and applied requires religious colporteurs to pay a license tax as a condition to the pursuit of their activities.

The alleged justification for the exaction of this license tax is the fact that the religious literature is distributed with a solicitation of funds. Thus it was stated in Jones v. Opelika, supra, 316 U.S. at page 597, 62 S.Ct. at page 1239, 86 L.Ed. 1691, 141 A.L.R. 514, that when a religious sect uses 'ordinary commercial methods of sales of articles to raise propaganda funds', it is proper for the state to charge 'reasonable fees for the privilege of canvassing'. Situations will arise where it will be difficult to determine whether a particular activity is religious or purely commercial. The distinction at times is vital. As we stated only the other day in Jamison v. Texas, 318 U.S. 413, 63 S.Ct. 669, 672, 87 L.Ed. —-, 'The state can prohibit the use of the street for the distribution of purely commercial leaflets, even though such leaflets may have 'a civil appeal, or a moral platitude' appended. Valentine v. Chrestensen, 316 U.S. 52, 55, 62 S.Ct. 920, 922, 86 L.Ed. 1262. They may not prohibit the distribution of handbills in the pursuit of a clearly religious activity merely because the handbills invite the purchase of books for the improved understanding of the religion or because the handbills seek in a lawful fashion to promote the raising of funds for religious purposes.' But the mere fact that the religious literature is 'sold' by itinerant preachers rather than 'donated' does not transform evangelism into a commercial enterprise. If it did, then the passing of the collection plate in church would make the church service a commercial project. The constitutional rights of those spreading their religious beliefs through the spoken and printed word are not to be gauged by standards governing retailers or wholesalers of books. The right to use the press for expressing one's views is not to be measured by the protection afforded commercial handbills. It should be remembered that the pamphlets of Thomas Paine were not distributed free of charge. It is plain that a religious organization needs funds to remain a going concern. But an itinerant evangelist however misguided or intolerant he may be, does not become a mere book agent by selling the Bible or religious tracts to help defray his expenses or to sustain him. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion are available to all, not merely to those who can pay their own way. As we have said, the problem of drawing the line between a purely commercial activity and a religious one will at times be difficult. On this record it plainly cannot be said that petitioners were engaged in a commercial rather than a religious venture. It is a distortion of the facts of record to describe their activities as the occupation of selling books and pamphlets. And the Pennsylvania court did not rest the judgments of conviction on that basis, though it did find that petitioners 'sold' the literature. The Supreme Court of Iowa in State v. Mead, 230 Iowa 1217, 300 N.W. 523, 524, described the selling activities of members of this same sect as 'merely incidental and collateral' to their 'main object which was to preach and publicize the doctrines of their order.' And see State v. Meredith, 197 S.C. 351, 15 S.E.2d 678; People v. Barber, 289 N.Y. 378, 385-386, 46 N.E.2d 329. That accurately summarizes the present record.

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