Fowler v. Rhode Island (1953)

Fowler was an important case in the development of the First Amendment Religion Clauses. The Court held unconstitutional a statute providing, “No person shall address any political or religious meeting in any public park,” which had been applied to arrest a minister of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rhode Island conceded that the ordinance did not prohibit religious services in the park, but only political speeches of the kind it stated Fowler had given. Fowler contended that the speech was a religious one. The State held that it was political.

The Supreme Court found that the State’s attempt to adjudicate what was or was not a religious service violated both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.

The Court explained, “Appellant’s sect has conventions that are different from the practices of other religious groups,” but that “it is no business of courts to say that what is a religious practice or activity for one group is not religion under the protection of the First Amendment. Nor is it in the competence of courts under our constitutional scheme to approve, disapprove, classify, regulate, or in any manner control” religious practices, which would be “merely an indirect way of preferring one religion over another.”