1937 May 3

Flag Salute Controversy Begins: Gobitas Sues Minersville, PA, School Board

 

As the rest of the world headed toward World War II, patriot fervor swept the U.S., as it had before, during and after World War I. One expression of that movement involved state laws requiring public school students to salute the flag each morning. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, regarded saluting the flag as an expression of a commitment to a secular authority and unfaithfulness to God. As a result, some families had their children refuse to participate in the compulsory salute.

On this day, Walter Gobitas (the family name was misspelled as Gobitis in the court case) sued the Minersville, Pennsylvania, School Board, in a case that ended up in the Supreme Court. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis (June 3, 1940), the court upheld the compulsory salute. Many observers then and now have regarded Justice Felix Frankfurter’s opinion, which put primary emphasis on the need for national unity, as a terrible opinion with misplaced values. In a dramatic reversal three years later, however, the court ruled the compulsory flag salute unconstitutional in West Virginia v. Barnette on June 14, 1943). Many observers regard Justice Robert Jackson’s majority opinion as one of the most eloquent statements on the importance of freedom of conscience in a free society.

The flag-salute cases were only two of many cases involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses in which the Supreme Court established important new First Amendment law. See, for example, Cantwell v. Connecticut, May 20, 1940 (affirming the free exercise of religion), Cox v. New Hampshire, March 31, 1941 (establishing time, place, and manner limits on public protests, but disallowing restrictions based on the content of the protest); and Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, March 9, 1942 (establishing the “fighting words” exception to the protection of free speech).

Learn more about the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940s:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2jCv-rrjqM

Read: Shawn Peters, Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (2000)

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