Minersville School District v. Gobitis

Minersville School District v. Gobitis

Overview
Minersville School District v. Gobitis, , was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 involving the religious rights of public school students under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution
First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering...

. The Court ruled that public schools could compel students—in this case, Jehovah's Witnesses
Jehovah's Witnesses
Jehovah's Witnesses is a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity. The religion reports worldwide membership of over 7 million adherents involved in evangelism, convention attendance of over 12 million, and annual...

—to salute the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance
Pledge of Allegiance
The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States is an expression of loyalty to the federal flag and the republic of the United States of America, originally composed by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942...

 despite the students' religious objections to these practices. This decision led to increased persecution of Witnesses in the United States.
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Encyclopedia
Minersville School District v. Gobitis, , was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 involving the religious rights of public school students under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution
First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering...

. The Court ruled that public schools could compel students—in this case, Jehovah's Witnesses
Jehovah's Witnesses
Jehovah's Witnesses is a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity. The religion reports worldwide membership of over 7 million adherents involved in evangelism, convention attendance of over 12 million, and annual...

—to salute the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance
Pledge of Allegiance
The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States is an expression of loyalty to the federal flag and the republic of the United States of America, originally composed by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942...

 despite the students' religious objections to these practices. This decision led to increased persecution of Witnesses in the United States. The Supreme Court overruled this decision a mere three years later, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 , is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that held that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected students from being forced to salute the American flag and say the...

, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

Jehovah's Witnesses and compulsory flag pledges


Compulsory flag pledges. Mandatory flag pledges
Pledge of Allegiance
The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States is an expression of loyalty to the federal flag and the republic of the United States of America, originally composed by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942...

 in public schools were motivated by patriotic fever in wartime America. The first known mandatory flag pledges were instituted in a number of states during the Spanish-American war. During World War I, many more states instituted mandatory flag pledges with only a few dissents recorded by the American Civil Liberties Union
American Civil Liberties Union
The American Civil Liberties Union is a U.S. non-profit organization whose stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." It works through litigation, legislation, and...

.

1935, June: Position of the Jehovah's Witnesses. On Monday, June 3, 1935, Watch Tower Society
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania is a non-stock, not-for-profit organization headquartered in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, United States. It is the main legal entity used worldwide by Jehovah's Witnesses to direct, administer and develop doctrines for the religion...

 president J. F. Rutherford, was interviewed at a Witness convention about "the flag salute by children in school". He told the convention audience that to salute an earthly emblem, ascribing salvation to it, was unfaithfulness to God. Rutherford said that he would not do it." While the matter was not yet established doctrine or written policy of Jehovah's Witnesses, at least some Witness families quickly made a personal conscientious decision on the matter.

1935, September: First refusal by a Jehovah's Witness. In 1935 in Lynn, Massachusetts, a third-grader and Jehovah’s Witness named Carleton Nichols refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and was expelled from school. The Nichols incident received widespread media attention, and other Witness students soon followed suit. Rutherford gave a radio address praising Nichols, and schools around the country began expelling Witness students and firing Witness teachers. Jehovah's Witnesses published the booklet Loyalty, making the matter an official doctrine of the faith before the end of 1935. Witnesses hired teachers and set up “Kingdom schools” to continue their children’s education.

The national leadership subsequently decided to make an issue of the forced pledges and asked people to stand up for their right to religious freedom.

Facts of the case


Walter Gobitas was a recent convert to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Gobitas was inspired by stories of other Jehovah's Witnesses who challenged the system and suffered for it, and decided to make a stand himself and instructed his children not to pledge allegiance when at school.

Minersville, Pennsylvania
Minersville, Pennsylvania
Minersville is located in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, four miles west of Pottsville. Anthracite coal deposits are plentiful in the region. In 1900, 4,815 people lived here; in 1910, 7,240, people lived here; and in 1940, 8,686 people lived here...

 was 90% Roman Catholic and there was significant animosity towards the Jehovah's Witnesses. Tensions were already high before this case arose and many viewed this as one way to get back at the troublesome Witnesses. As a result, his children were subjected to teasing, taunting, and attacks from the other kids. For Lillian, this meant giving up her status as class president and losing most of her friends. "When I'd come to school," she said, "they would throw a hail of pebbles and yell things like, 'Here comes Jehovah!' Billy's fifth grade teacher attempted to physically force his arm out of his pocket to make the requisite salute.

A local Catholic church started a boycott of the family store and its business dropped off. Because of their eventual expulsion, their father had to pay for them to enroll in a private school, resulting in even more economic hardship.

At first the school board was in a quandary because the law did not provide penalties for those who refused to pledge. Finally, though, the school board got permission to punish the Gobitas children and expelled them, without appeal.

Trial


The case was argued in Philadelphia on 15 February 1938. During the trial, school superintendent Roudabush displayed contempt for the beliefs of the children, stating that he felt they had been "indoctrinated" and that the existence of even a few dissenters would be "demoralizing," leading to widespread disregard for the flag and American values. Four months later District Judge Albert B. Maris found that the board's requirement that the children salute the flag was an unconstitutional violation of their free exercise of religious beliefs.

Third Circuit


Within two weeks, the school board unanimously agreed to appeal the decision. Oral arguments in the appeal were made before the Third Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals on 9 November 1938. One year later, the three-judge court unanimously affirmed the district court decision.

Despite its two defeats in the lower courts, the school board decided to take its case to the Supreme Court, authorizing its attorney to file a petition for a writ of certiorari, which the Court granted on 4 March 1940.

Oral argument


The Court heard oral arguments on 25 April. Joseph Rutherford
Joseph Franklin Rutherford
Joseph Franklin Rutherford , also known as "Judge" Rutherford, was the second president of the incorporated Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, and played a primary role in the organization and doctrinal development of Jehovah's Witnesses, which emerged from the Bible Student movement established...

, president of the Watch Tower Society,
and himself a lawyer, took over the defense, assisted by the new head of the religious group's Legal Department, Hayden Covington
Hayden C. Covington
Hayden Cooper Covington was legal counsel for the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society during one of its most difficult periods in the mid-20th century. Hayden Covington has a record 37 victories in the United States Supreme Court, the most since the Judiciary Act of 1869 which fixed the Supreme...

. The ACLU and the Committee on the Bill of Rights of the American Bar Association filed amicus curiae briefs.

Opinion of the court


The Court's decision was nearly unanimous; only Justice Harlan F. Stone dissented. In an 8-to-1 decision, the Court upheld the mandatory flag salute, declining to make itself "the school board for the country."

Justice Felix Frankfurter
Felix Frankfurter
Felix Frankfurter was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.-Early life:Frankfurter was born into a Jewish family on November 15, 1882, in Vienna, Austria, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Europe. He was the third of six children of Leopold and Emma Frankfurter...

 wrote the majority decision; in doing so, he relied primarily on the "secular regulation" rule, which weighs the secular purpose of a nonreligious government regulation against the religious practice it makes illegal or otherwise burdens the exercise of religion. He identified the Pennsylvania flag-salute requirement as an intrinsically secular policy enacted to encourage patriotism among school children.

Frankfurter wrote that the school district's interest in creating national unity was enough to allow them to require students to salute the flag. According to Frankfurter, the nation needed loyalty and the unity of all the people. Since saluting the flag was a primary means of achieving this legitimate goal, an issue of national importance was at stake.

The Court held that the state's interest in "national cohesion" was "inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values".


National unity is the basis of national security. To deny the legislature the right to select appropriate means for its attainment presents a totally different order of problem from that of the propriety of subordinating the possible ugliness of littered streets to the free expression opinion through handbills.


Weighing the circumstances in this case, he argued that the social need for conformity with the requirement was greater than the individual liberty claims of the Jehovah's Witnesses. He emphasized that


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


Frankfurter further wrote that the recitation of a pledge advanced the cause of patriotism in the United States. He said the country's foundation as a free society depends upon building sentimental ties.

The flag, the Court found, was an important symbol of national unity and could be a part of legislative initiatives designed "to promote in the minds of children who attend the common schools an attachment to the institutions of their country."

Dissenting opinion


Harlan Stone, the lone dissenter from the majority's decision wrote:

Effects of the decision


On June 9, a mob of 2,500 burned the Kingdom Hall in Kennebunkport, Maine. On June 16, Litchfield, Illinois police jailed all of that town's sixty Witnesses, ostensibly protecting them from their neighbors. On June 18, townspeople in Rawlins, Wyoming brutally beat five Witnesses; on the 22nd, the people of Parco, Wyoming tarred and feathered
Tarring and feathering
Tarring and feathering is a physical punishment, used to enforce unofficial justice or revenge. It was used in feudal Europe and its colonies in the early modern period, as well as the early American frontier, mostly as a type of mob vengeance .-Description:In a typical tar-and-feathers attack, the...

 another.

American Legion
American Legion
The American Legion is a mutual-aid organization of veterans of the United States armed forces chartered by the United States Congress. It was founded to benefit those veterans who served during a wartime period as defined by Congress...

 posts harassed Witnesses nationwide. For example, on June 27, members of the American Legion forced Witnesses from a trailer camp in Jackson, Mississippi and escorted them across state lines to Louisiana, where they were "...passed from county to county, finally winding up in the vicinity of Dallas, Texas." A Nebraska Witness was castrated. Little Rock Witnesses were beaten with pipes and screwdrivers. West Virginia Witnesses were forced to drink castor oil and then tied together with police department rope. Witnesses were jailed for sedition, jailed for distributing literature, jailed for holding a parade, jailed for canvassing without a license.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported to the Justice Department that nearly 1,500 Witnesses were physically attacked in more than 300 communities nationwide. One Southern sheriff told a reporter why Witnesses were being run out of town: "They're traitors; the Supreme Court says so. Ain't you heard?"

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. She supported the New Deal policies of her husband, distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and became an advocate for civil rights. After her husband's death in 1945, Roosevelt continued to be an international...

 appealed publicly for calm, while newspaper editorials and the American legal community condemned the Gobitis decision as a blow to liberty. Several justices signaled their belief that the case had been “wrongly decided.”

Subsequent history


Partly because of the violent reaction to its decision, the Supreme Court reversed itself a few years later. On 14 June 1943 (Flag Day), the court handed down West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 , is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that held that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected students from being forced to salute the American flag and say the...

. Justice Robert Jackson
Robert H. Jackson
Robert Houghwout Jackson was United States Attorney General and an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court . He was also the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials...

 echoed Judge Stone's dissent when he wrote, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion".

Justice Frank Murphy
Frank Murphy
William Francis Murphy was a politician and jurist from Michigan. He served as First Assistant U.S. District Attorney, Eastern Michigan District , Recorder's Court Judge, Detroit . Mayor of Detroit , the last Governor-General of the Philippines , U.S...

 considered the reversal to be an important personal landmark.

The elevation of Harlan Fiske Stone to Chief Justice, and the appointment of two new members to the Supreme Court, were also factors in the Court's reversal of policy.

The active persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses abated somewhat, although thousands were arrested during World War II for seeking religious exemption from military service. They were accused, without any basis, of being Nazi sympathizers.

See also

  • Knocking
    Knocking (documentary)
    Knocking is a 2006 documentary film directed by Joel Engardio and Tom Shepard that focuses on the civil liberties fought for by Jehovah's Witnesses...

    , a documentary on Jehovah's Witnesses that features Lillian and William Gobitis
  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 310
  • Letter, Billy Gobitas to Minersville, Pennsylvania, school directors, explaining why the young Jehovah's Witness refused to salute the American flag, 5 November 1935. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(mcc/016))

Further reading

  • Tushnet, Mark, ed.
    Mark Tushnet
    Mark Victor Tushnet is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. A prominent scholar of constitutional law and legal history, he is the author of many books and articles.-Career:...

    (2008) I Dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases, Malaysia: Beacon Press, pp. 256, ISBN 978-080700036-6.

External links