Minersville School District v. Gobitis 310 US 586 (1940)

In 1935, Billy and Lillian Gobitas were 10 and 12 year old students in Minersville, PN. Their refusal to salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance was the basis for the first US Supreme Court case on the issue. Their last name is Gobitas, but a printing error has enshrined a typo in constitutional case law and apparently no one can or will officially correct it.

In the Minersville School District, like most school districts at the time, students and teachers were required to salute the flag each day. Back in 1935, the pledge incorporated a rather Nazi-like raised arm salute which had been eliminated by the 1950s. But the Gobitas children were Jehovah's Witnesses, a religion which has extremely strong strictures against idolatry in any form, which they extend to oaths, salutes, and the like. The children refused to participate in the pledge and Billy penned a letter to the school board in his own hand explaining his reasons. (It can be seen at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/images/tlc0220.jpg).

Minersville, PA
Nov. 5, 1935

Our School Directors
Dear Sirs

I do not salute the flag because I have promised to do the will of God. That means that I must not worship anything out of harmony with God’s law. In the twentieth chapter of Exodus it is stated, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor bow down to them nor serve them for I the Lord they God am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. I am a true follower of Christ. I do not salute the flag not because I do not love my country but I love my country and I love God more and I must obey His commandements.

Your pupil,
Billy Gobitas

Nevertheless, the school board voted to expel the children for insubordination. The children went to private school and The Watchtower Society sued on their behalf. Lower court decisions favored them, but the Supreme Court overturned the lower courts in an 8-1 decision. Justice Harlan Stone was the only dissenter. Writing for the majority, Justice Felix Frankfurter cited “national unity” as a reason for overriding the Gobitas’ religious beliefs and enforcing the pledge upon all:
Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for religious toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law not aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious beliefs. The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities.

National unity is the basis of national security. ...The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment. ...'We live by these symbols.' The flag is a symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences, however large, within the framework of the Constitution.
Immediately following the decision was a wave of prejudice and violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses, prodded on by wartime patriotic fervor. In Little Rock, AR, construction workers stormed a Witness convention, beat them with pipes, and shot and killed two of them. In Kennebunk, MA, a mob of thousands burned a Witness hall.

Stone’s strong dissent was the basis of the court decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which reversed the Minersville decision a mere three years later on the basis of free speech.

The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court
David Whitman, “Conservatives forget history in flag issue”. St. Petersburg Times, September 19, 1988.

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