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M, Murdock v. Pennsylvania,

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman

From: The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 23 November 2020

Murdock v. Pennsylvania,

319 U.S. 105 (1943), argued 10–11 Mar. 1943, decided 3 May 1943 by vote of 5 to 4; Douglas for the Court, Reed, Frankfurter, Jackson, and Roberts in dissent. The Murdock decision was one of a group of World War II–era cases that contributed to the rapid and contentious development of *First Amendment doctrine respecting freedom of *religion. Justice William O. *Douglas, speaking for the majority, stressed that freedom of speech, press, and religion occupied a “preferred position” under the Constitution (p. 115).

*Lovell v. City of Griffin (1938), the first of the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses cases establishing specific guidelines for regulating religious communication, struck down a licensing ordinance as applied to religious colporteurs. Thereafter, in (p. 659) a line of decisions the Supreme Court voided ordinances requiring a permit for door-to-door religious pamphleteering and prior approval by a public official for soliciting funds for religious use.

In this context the justices in Murdock struck down the application of a city ordinance requiring Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious proselytizers to pay a license tax. Douglas concluded that the license tax “restrains in advance those constitutional liberties of press and religion and inevitably tends to suppress their exercise” (p. 114). Justice Stanley *Reed, dissenting, maintained that localities could levy reasonable and nondiscriminatory taxes on the sale of religious literature.

See also preferred freedoms doctrine.

William M. Wiecek