Lovell v. City of Griffin

LocationUnited States of America
Case ArguedFebruary 4, 1938
Judgment DateMarch 28, 1938
CourtSupreme Court of United States
Case Citations303 U.S. 444 (1938); 58 S.Ct 666

In this whole world, there are different people with different viewpoints and different beliefs on life, death and fate in relation to which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual or in simple words the relation between mankind and religion. Many historical incidents are the evidence which upholds the struggle of humans to keep their religious culture alive. Religion is not only one’s belief but also the way they live. As to maintain order in all kinds of religions there are laws on different religions and the law evolved with the religious evolution. In this article a United States case will be discussed in details which deal with promoting religious beliefs. “Freedom of Religion” is constitutionally protected in the United States and this article also aims to discuss the controversies regarding this particular freedom briefly.   


Lovell v. City of Griffin is the case of the United States; this case mainly looks into the legal validity of the first and fourteenth amendment. This case observes the causes of the infringement of the freedom of speech and freedom of press. It also observes when these freedoms are applicable. This case was judged by the Chief Justice Charles E. Hughes and associate justices were James C. McReynolds, Louis Brandeis, Pierce Butler, Harlan F.Stone, Owen Roberts, Benjamin N. Cardozo, Hugo Black, and Stanley F. Reed. But the associate justice Benjamin N. Cardozo did not participate in any kind of decision made by the court regarding this case.  

Facts of the case

Alma Lovell, the appellant of the case, was a member of the Jehovah Witness. Alma was considered to be guilty and was presented in the recorder’s court of the Griffin City and was also sentenced to imprisonment for fifty days as she was unable to pay the fine of $50 because she infringed an ordinance of the city which says-

 “Practice of distributing, either by hand or otherwise, circulars, handbooks, advertising, or literature of any kind whether said articles whether said articles are being delivered free, or whether the same are sold, within the limits of the city of Griffin, without first obtaining written permission of the city manager of the city of Griffin, such practice shall be deemed a nuisance and a punishable offence against the city of Griffin.”

Alma Lovell didn’t oppose that she violated the city ordinance, but she argued that the ordinance itself violates the first and the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution. The Court of Appeals asserted the lower court judgment. The Supreme Court of Georgia denied the application for certiorari and the case was filed as an appeal in the Supreme Court of the United States.     


In 1938 the Supreme Court of the United States passed a statement that a Jehovah’s Witness violated a local ordinance without any permission. Now the question may arise: what is a Jehovah’s Witness? The Jehovah’s Witness is the protuberance of the International Bible Student Association, founded in Pittsburgh in 1872 by Charles Taze Russell. But this began during the 1800s with the Adventist Movement in the United States which believed in the Christian religion. But their beliefs were much more unique than other believers of the Christian religion, they believed in the idea of the ‘creator’ i.e. the ‘God’ and Jesus Christ is the son of the ‘God’. They believed in peace and non-violence. Their belief on death or afterlife was much more different; they did not believe in hell and heaven. Instead, they argued that Jesus Christ was not nailed but was killed. And Jehovah’s witnesses are the members of this movement. The Jehovah’s Witnesses practice going door to door and promoting their beliefs on the religion and most of their practices are considered controversial not only in the United States but also across many countries. And Alma Lovell was one of the members of the Jehovah Witnesses. 


The major issue that was raised in this case was: 

  • Whether the city ordinance infringed the rights protected under the first as well as the fourteenth amendment?

Related Cases

Reynolds v. United States

This was an 1879 Supreme Court case. This was a landmark case in the United States Supreme Court. George Reynolds was married to Mary Ann Tuddenham, but he married Amelia Jane Schofield while he was still married to Mary. He was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. George Reynolds was held liable under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. The LDS said that the charge against Reynolds was unconstitutional as it violated the first amendment of the United States constitution. The law stated: 

“ Every person having a husband or wife living, who marries another, whether married or single, in a Territory, or other place over which the United States have exclusive jurisdiction, is guilty of bigamy, and shall be punished by a fine not more than $500, and by imprisonment for a term of not more than five years.”

But in defense he can perform multiple marriages as a part of his religious duty and he should be held not guilty if he can prove that he performed another marriage out of religious belief. The issue raised was whether a religious belief can be used as a defense to a criminal charge? The court held that polygamy cannot be allowed even if it is done out of religious duty or belief. A crime should be treated as a crime and no one can use religion as an excuse to cause crime. 

Stromberg v. California 

This was a 1931 case and was a landmark decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States. Yetta Stromberg, who used to work in the communist youth summer camp for working class students, was charged under section 403 (a) of the California Penal Code, as Stromberg violated the law by possessing a red flag and few pamphlets promoting communism which was found in the summer camp. According to law there are three reasons why raising such flag is prohibited and they are-

“(a) as a sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government or (b) as an invitation or stimulus to anarchistic action or (c) as an aid to propaganda that is of a seditious character.” It was said that if possession of the flag fulfils any of the reasons then Stromberg will be held liable.

Stromberg lost all the trials and appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The major issue which was raised was whether the law violated the first amendment of the United States Constitution. It was held by the court that the first clause or the first reason of upholding a flag in the California law was unconstitutional. And the court also says that waving a red flag is protected under the first amendment of the United States Constitution. But Justice Pierce Butler disagreed and wrote that Stromberg was not held liable unconstitutionally and the conviction should stand. 

Coleman v. City of Griffin 

This case was decided on September 17, 1936 in the Court of Appeals of Georgia. Coleman was one of the members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and was sentenced to imprisonment for violation of section 1 of the Griffin city’s ordinance. He was held on a trial where Mr. Paul Slaton, a citizen of the Griffin city testified saying that he saw Coleman distributing circulars. It was stated that Coleman didn’t take any prior permission from the city authority to distribute the circulars. The Court in this case referred to Reynolds’s case where it was said “a party’s religious belief cannot be accepted as a justification for his committing an overt act made criminal by the law of the land”. The court also failed to state whether the ordinance violated the fourteenth amendment of the constitution of the United States.    


The Supreme Court Chief Justice Hughes decided this case and gave his opinion that the city ordinance was unconstitutional because “it strikes at the very foundation of the freedom of the press by subjecting it to license and censorship”. To obtain a license for distributing the circulars is itself making this ordinance unconstitutional. The Court says that this ordinance violates the first amendment freedoms extended by the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution.   


History says that pamphlets, leaflets, handbills are weapons in the defense of liberty. Previously, before the technology came, people used to get information regarding many things through these kinds of printed publications. These were the only source of information. The judgment on this case limited the state governments to restrict the distribution of religious literature and promoting literature. But it is necessary for every citizen to use their religious freedom in a truthful and sincere manner; one should not commit crime in the excuse of religious belief.  


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