Little attention was paid to the passing of Lillian Gobitis on August 22nd, at the age of 90, in Fayetteville, GA. Almost no one would know her name or have a clue that this woman had a role in framing First Amendment law that we take for granted. What happened to her a long time ago is very relevant today.
Times were very different in 1940. World War II had begun a year earlier, and the United States was gearing up for its inevitable participation. Minersville, PA was no different than a lot of school districts that passed a requirement for school children to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The small town was made up largely of Roman Catholics, and the Gobitis family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Back then Jehovah’s Witnesses were especially unpopular, not only for their beliefs, but also because of what some might consider heavy-handed proselytizing.
At their parents’ direction, Lillian and her younger brother Billy refused to salute the flag or say the pledge, because their faith considers it a form of idolatry. As a result, they experienced horrible insults, violent clashes, the local Catholic Church boycotted the family store, and ultimately the children were expelled from school. A lawsuit followed, and a federal district court in Philadelphia held that the school district had violated their free exercise of belief. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision.
In an 8-1 opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court, the majority overturned the Court of Appeals. (Skipping the esoteric legalism), Justice Felix Frankfurter declared that the school district policy was a legitimate secular policy to promote patriotism and to unify the country. The atrocities that resulted from this case are too numerous and too graphic to list. Beatings, arson, castration, and other acts of brutal violence were committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses around the country with some 1,500 reported victims. In effect, the Supreme Court had legitimized forced acts of patriotism, and this gave the self-proclaimed patriots excuses to rid their communities of people who were “un-American.”
Following the Gobitis decision, the state of West Virginian enacted a law empowering school districts to mandate reciting the pledge and saluting the flag. A very similar fact pattern developed with the Barnette family, also Jehovah’s Witnesses, when they refused to obey the law. The justices on the Supreme Court were well aware of the violence that ensued from Gobitis. On Flag Day, June 14, 1943, in the case of West Virginia vs. Barnette, the high court overturned its decision from three years earlier. Justice Robert H. Jackson summed it up with these words, “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 or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
As for me, I don’t like it when I see people sit during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, or not participating in the Pledge of Allegiance. But as an American, I respect the right of free expression provided it doesn’t violate time, place and manner limitations as defined over the years by the Supreme Court. Protecting their rights protects mine. Lots of speech is offensive, whether verbal or symbolic, but I would much prefer to live with it than to live in a country that suppressed “unpopular” speech or beliefs. Compulsory flag saluting is a first cousin of banning religious faith, which communist and other countries tried, and which we see today in the Middle East, not only with IS, but even in “friendly” countries like Saudi Arabia.
Lillian Gobitis and her brother led the way to affirming freedom of conscience embodied in the First Amendment. And that freedom, the most paramount of all, defines us uniquely as Americans. May each of us pay the debt forward that Lillian and Billy paid in 1940, to promote liberty wherever it is challenged.