June 3, 2011
Today in 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Minersville School District v. Gobitis, holding that a state legislature may compel schoolchildren to recite the pledge of allegiance and salute the American flag.
The facts involved a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believed that it was blasphemous to pledge allegiance to anything but the Kingdom of God.
The family’s two children, 12-year-old Lillian Gobitis and ten-year-old William Gobitis, were expelled from the public schools of Minersville, Pennsylvania, for refusing to salute the national flag as part of a daily school exercise.
Their father sued to reinstate the children at the public schools on the grounds that the law unconstitutionally impinges on the free exercise of their religious beliefs.
The trial and appellate courts both found for the Gobitises, and the school district petitioned for, and was granted, cert with the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court saw the case as a balancing between constitutionally-protected individual religious rights and the legislature’s right to promote national cohesion.
The Court also saw the case as a struggle between parents and school authorities over ideals implanted in a child’s mind.
On that issue, the Court sided 8-1 with the school district, holding that the interest in promoting national unity overrides a parent’s interest to raise a child how he or she wishes.
The case by itself isn’t terribly groundbreaking, mostly because it was overruled three years later by West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
What happened between Gobitis and Barnette to make the almost unanimous Court change its mind?
The Gobitis decision, in the setting of a nation mobilizing for war, incited a mass outbreak of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Barnette, decided in almost complete response to the aftermath of Gobitis, is considered one of the most sweeping affirmations of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights in the Court’s history.
Unlike Gobitis, Barnette was not decided on grounds of religious freedom, but on those of free speech (holding that the state cannot compel speech from individuals).
Nonetheless, the majority opinion in Barnette included a point-by-point counterargument to the majority opinion in Gobitis.
Among these countered points, the majority attacks Gobitis’s assertion that dissenters should seek solutions to their problems at the polls.
The Barnette response to this – asserting that the freedoms granted by the Bill of Rights are beyond the reach of the electorate – is the most quoted section of the opinion, and has become a popular quote in its own right.
Thus, Gobitis marked the end of a narrow interpretation of religious freedoms in that it laid the groundwork for Barnette, a fervent statement against Gobitis and a powerful turn the other direction.
That direction, of broad religious freedoms, is an area of law that continues to be developed even today.
Except for the occasional hiccup (Employment Division v. Smith comes to mind), the standard set by Barnette continues to prevail.
So, in the end, the Gobitis decision helped ensure not only its own reversal, but that such a decision would never be made again.
Editor’s Note: the full quote from the Barnette opinion is as follows:
The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.