The Agitator #132: An unsung heroine
by Oliver_Halle
 The Agitator
September 04, 2014 10:45 AM | 2380 views | 3 3 comments | 138 138 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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.

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EM Buckner
September 06, 2014
As an atheist (no surprise of course to anyone who's read my letters or other comments to MDJ readers), I cannot pretend to understand or agree with the Jehovah's Witnesses on much of anything. Whether their beliefs regarding idolatry make any sense to Jerry or Ben or Oliver or me is *not* the key, however. As Americans, they retain the right to judge for themselves on this or any other religion-related issue. They don't have to convince me or Jerry; their rights, like my own and Jerry's, are protected by the Constitution (or by implication from the Declaration as "natural," inherent, rights), subject to no man's understanding. Under our secular Constitution and government, I can consider Jerry's Christianity nonsensical and he can consider my atheism anathema, even while both of us retain the right to believe (or not) as we wish and to practice any religion or none as we deem wise. Both of should be proud to have religious freedom, and grateful to Lillian Gobitis, Justice Robert Jackson, and many who fought and fewer (but still many) who died to protect our liberty. That's the basis of real American patriotism.
Jerry Jones
September 05, 2014

The ridiculous claim that saluting the flag, or pledging allegiance to the flag, or standing for the national anthem is IDOLATRY, is a contrived reasoning which is easily defeated by simple logic.

The WatchTower Society simply needed some reasoning -- any reasoning -- with alleged "religious" basis, so that its Jehovah's Witness members did not have to repeat to the general public, or the news media, or courtroom judges or juries, the even more ridiculous and outragous ACTUAL REASON that the WatchTower Society FORBIDS its Jehovah's Witness members from expressing any loyalty whatsoever to any local, state, or federal governmental entity.

What Jehovah's Witnesses intentionally do NOT publically explain to non-JWs is that the Watch Tower Society teaches Jehovah's Witnesses that the Government of the United States is governing ILLEGITIMATELY.

The Watch Tower Society teaches that the Government of the United States is under the control of Satan the Devil as his partner in Satan's universal rebellion against GOD. The Watch Tower Society teaches that GOD granted humans the authority to rule the earth only for a period of 2520 years -- starting in 607 B.C. and ending in October, 1914 A.D. The Watch Tower Society teaches that in October, 1914, the authority to rule the earth reverted back to GOD, and that He then formed a heavenly government to rule the earth. The Watch Tower Society teaches that in 1919 that Jesus Christ selected the Watch Tower Society as his sole earthly representative of that heavenly government.

The Watch Tower Society teaches that the Government of the United States (as well as all other governments), is its' ENEMY, because it has failed to surrender governmental power that rightfully belongs to the Watch Tower Society.

These are the ACTUAL reasons that the Watch Tower Society forbids its Jehovah's Witnesses members to support the government of the United States -- no voting, no holding political office, no professing citizen loyalty via the Pledge of Allegiance or standing for the National Anthem, no joining the military to protect the United States, etc.

The Watch Tower Society teaches that Armageddon will occur "soon", and at the Battle of Armageddon, that Jesus Christ and his heavenly armies will attack and destroy the government of the United States and its military, as well as all people who did not convert to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Jehovah's Witnesses look forward to the day when they will rule the planet.

So, go ahead and laud the WatchTower Society for what it has done for the expansion of constitutional rights. The WatchTower Society considers you to be a fool whom its' Jesus will soon exterminate.
Ben Twomey
September 04, 2014
Oliver, I am aware of the Jehovah's Witnesses pronouncement that saluting the flag or pledging allegiance to same is a form of idolatry. In questioning various people of that faith, I have failed to find one who can explain the origin of that belief. I could see it if we were bowing down and worshipping the flag, as one might worship a graven image or an idol of some sort. However pledging allegiance to the flag of the country, one of the few in the world where they are free to worship as they please, does not fit the mold of idol worship, as I see it.

That being said, I do not wish to deny them that belief, but rather I would like to understand the logic of it.
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