Cantwell was a major hybrid religious freedom/freedom of speech case that for the first time explicitly held that the Free Exercise Clause applies to the states as well as the federal government. Cantwell was a Jehovah’s Witness minister who would proselytize and seek donations on the streets and by going door-to-door. He often broadly criticized other religions, including the Catholic Church. He was arrested for disturbing the peace and for violating a local statute requiring a permit to solicit for religious or charitable purposes. The statute was vague as to the criteria for issuing permits, and Jehovah’s Witnesses often were denied permits.
The Supreme Court not only struck down the statute because it permitted broad and vague authority to deny permits for protected speech, but also made clear that just because Cantwell used critical speech, it did not deprive him of the right to proselytize. As the Court in Cantwell recognized, religious beliefs tend to be among the most strongly held and exclusive points of view, and they uniquely engender controversy, hostility, rivalry and prejudice:
“In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times, resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.”