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 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.
William M. Wiecek