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Monday, April 26, 2010

Hayden Covington (1911 - 1978)

Hayden Covington was born in Hopkins County, Texas, in 1911. Around the time that he was studying for his law degree, he became involved with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He defended some Witnesses in the San Antonio area and was eventually invited by the Witness leadership to New York. He joined the organization’s legal counsel in 1939 and served until 1963. In that time as the Witnesses’ attorney, Covington is said to have presented 111 petitions and appeals to the Supreme Court, and he won well above 80% of the 44 cases he brought before the Court. The cases dealt with issues ranging from compulsory flag-salute statutes, to street preaching, to door-to-door literature distribution. Later in his career Covington assisted prize-fighter Muhammad Ali in obtaining a draft exemption as a Muslim minister. Covington’s role as lawyer for the Jehovah’s Witnesses is recounted in Shawn Francis Peters’ Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (2002).

First Amendment lawyers -

“Determined to Keep Close to the Lord”

It was Brother Rutherford’s heartfelt wish that Jehovah’s Witnesses declare the good news without letup. So in mid-December 1941, several weeks before his death, he called together four directors of the two principal legal corporations used by Jehovah’s Witnesses and suggested that as soon after his death as possible, all the members of the two boards be called in joint session and a president and a vice president be elected.

On the afternoon of January 13, 1942, just five days after Rutherford’s death, all the board members of the two corporations met jointly at Brooklyn Bethel. Several days earlier, the Society’s vice president, 36-year-old Nathan H. Knorr, had suggested that they earnestly seek divine wisdom by prayer and meditation. The board members recognized that while the brother elected president would administer the legal affairs of the Watch Tower Society, he would also serve as a principal overseer of the organization. Who had the needed spiritual qualifications for this weighty responsibility in caring for Jehovah’s work? The joint meeting was opened with prayer, and after careful consideration, Brother Knorr was unanimously elected president of the two corporations and 30-year-old Hayden C. Covington, the Society’s lawyer, vice president.

Later that day, W. E. Van Amburgh, the Society’s secretary-treasurer, announced to the Bethel family the results of the election. R. E. Abrahamson, who was present on that occasion, recalled that Van Amburgh said: ‘I can remember when C. T. Russell died and was replaced by J. F. Rutherford. The Lord continued to direct and prosper His work. Now, I fully expect the work to move ahead with Nathan H. Knorr as president, because this is the Lord’s work, not man’s.’

How did the Bethel family members in Brooklyn feel about the results of the election? A touching letter from them dated January 14, 1942, the day after the election, answers: “His [Rutherford’s] change shall not slow us up in the performance of the task the Lord has assigned to us. We are determined to keep close to the Lord and to one another, firmly pushing the battle to the gate, fighting shoulder to shoulder. . . . Our intimate association with Brother Knorr for approximately twenty years . . . enables us to appreciate the Lord’s direction in the choice of Brother Knorr as president and thereby the loving watch-care of the Lord over His people.” Letters and cablegrams of support soon poured into headquarters from around the world.

There was no feeling of uncertainty as to what to do. A special article was prepared for the February 1, 1942, Watchtower, the very same issue that announced the death of J. F. Rutherford. “The final gathering by the Lord is on,” it declared. “Let nothing for one instant interrupt the onward push of his covenant-people in His service. . . . Now to hold fast our integrity toward the Almighty God is the ALL-IMPORTANT thing.” Jehovah’s Witnesses were urged to continue declaring the good news with zeal.

But ‘holding fast their integrity’ was a real challenge in the early 1940’s. The world was still at war. Wartime restrictions in many parts of the earth made it difficult for Jehovah’s Witnesses to preach. Arrests and mob action against the Witnesses continued unabated. Hayden Covington, as the Society’s legal counsel, directed the legal fight, sometimes from his office at Brooklyn headquarters and sometimes from trains as he traveled caring for legal cases. Working with local lawyers, such as Victor Schmidt, Grover Powell, and Victor Blackwell, Brother Covington fought hard to establish the constitutional rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to preach from house to house and to distribute Bible literature without restraint from local officials.

- Declaring the Good News Without Letup (1942-1975)

As the intensity of house-to-house witnessing increased, however, so did attempts to apply laws to abridge or prohibit it. Not all lands have legal provisions that make it possible to secure freedoms for minorities in the face of official opposition. But Jehovah’s Witnesses knew that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. So, when judges construed local ordinances in such a way as to hinder the preaching of God’s Word, the Witnesses appealed their cases to the higher courts.

In reviewing what took place, Hayden C. Covington, who had a prominent role in legal matters for the Watch Tower Society, later explained: “Had the thousands of convictions entered by the magistrates, police courts and other lower courts not been appealed, a mountain of precedent would have piled up as a giant obstacle in the field of worship. By appealing we have prevented the erection of such obstacle. Our way of worship has been written into the law of the land of the United States and other countries because of our persistence in appealing from adverse decisions.” In the United States, scores of cases went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Strengthening the Guarantees of Freedom

One of the first cases involving the ministry of Jehovah’s Witnesses to reach the Supreme Court of the United States originated in Georgia and was argued before the Court on February 4, 1938. Alma Lovell had been convicted in the recorder’s court of Griffin, Georgia, of violating an ordinance that prohibited the distribution of literature of any kind without a permit from the city manager. Among other things, Sister Lovell had offered people the magazine The Golden Age. On March 28, 1938, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the ordinance was invalid because it subjected freedom of the press to license and censorship.

The following year J. F. Rutherford, as attorney for the petitioner, presented arguments to the Supreme Court in the case of Clara Schneider v. State of New Jersey. This was followed, in 1940, by Cantwell v. State of Connecticut, for which J. F. Rutherford drafted the legal brief and Hayden Covington presented oral argument before the Court. The positive outcome of these cases buttressed the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. But there were setbacks.

- ‘Defending and Legally Establishing the Good News’, WTB&TS

How the Governing Body Differs From a Legal Corporation

ANNUAL meetings of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania have been held since January of 1885. When the ingathering of anointed Christians was underway in the late 19th century, the directors and officers of this corporation had the heavenly hope. In fact, this has almost always been the case.

There was one exception. In 1940, Hayden C. Covington—then the Society’s legal counsel and one of the “other sheep,” with the earthly hope—was elected a director of the Society. (John 10:16) He served as the Society’s vice president from 1942 to 1945. At that time, Brother Covington stepped aside as a director to comply with what then seemed to be Jehovah’s will—that all directors and officers of the Pennsylvania corporation be anointed Christians. Lyman A. Swingle replaced Hayden C. Covington on the board of directors, and Frederick W. Franz was elected vice president.

Why did Jehovah’s servants believe that all the directors and officers of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania should be anointed Christians? Because at the time, the board of directors and officers of the Pennsylvania corporation were closely identified with the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has always been made up entirely of spirit-anointed men.

- Jan. 15, 2001 Watchtower, WTB&TS

Covington was attracted to the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses and impressed by the dedication and character of the members, defending several of them in Texas courts prior to formally joining the group himself. His first exposure to their teachings was through listening to the broadcast sermons of Watch Tower Society President Joseph F. Rutherford on radio station KTSA in San Antonio.

Word of Covington's successes in defending the Witnesses reached the New York headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses, and he was asked by President Rutherford to join him in representing the Society on a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was then invited to join headquarters staff as general counsel in 1939, succeeding Olin R. Moyle, who had been ousted that year in a dispute with Rutherford over Rutherford's alleged heavy drinking and cursing.

When Judge Rutherford died in January 1942, his aggressive litigation policy was carried on by Covington. Honoring Rutherford's deathbed wishes, Hayden Covington was even elected Vice-President of the Watch Tower Society succeeding the newly elected President, Nathan H. Knorr, despite having been a Jehovah's Witnesses for only five years. Throughout most of its history, appointment to the board of directors of the Watch Tower Society, and thus by implication to the "Governing Body" of Jehovah's Witnesses, has been limited to those professing to be of the "anointed class" within the group; the "spirit begotten" sons of God who would "rule as Kings" in heaven with Christ. To date, the one exception has been Hayden C. Covington. A subsequent policy change resulted in Covington's resignation from the Vice Presidency and departure from the board in 1945, although remaining on staff as legal counsel.

In the following years, Hayden Covington came to be hailed as one of the greatest civil liberties attorneys in American history. During his tenure as the head of the Watch Tower Society's Legal Department, Covington is said to have presented 111 petitions and appeals to the Supreme Court; he won well above 80% of the 44 cases he brought before the Court. The cases dealt with issues ranging from compulsory flag-salute statutes, to street preaching, to door-to-door literature distribution. He eventually resigned as Head of the Watch Tower Society's Legal Department.

- From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, April 26, 2010