Minersville Sch. Dist. v. Board of Educ. - 310 U.S. 586 (1940)
This was a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States involving the
religious rights of public school students under the First Amendment to the United
NOTE: It is interesting to note that at this time in Europe, Nazi Germany had taken
control of all of mainland Europe, driving British troops off the mainland and securing
the surrender of France. Japan had invaded and occupied Korea, Formosa and China.
Yet the United States had not been brought into the war. It was more than a year
later that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and so this was the climate in which this
decision was made.
Wikipedia reports: ... The first known mandatory flag pledges were instituted in
a number of states during the Spanish-American war (1898). During World War I, (1917-1918)
many more states instituted mandatory flag pledges with only a few dissents recorded
by the American Civil Liberties Union.
On Monday, June 3, 1935, Watch Tower Society 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.
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.
In the case that was taken before the U.S. Supreme Court, Lillian Gobitis, aged twelve,
and her brother William, aged ten, were expelled from the public schools of Minersville,
Pennsylvania, for refusing to salute the national flag as part of a daily school
exercise. The local Board of Education required both teachers and pupils to participate
in this ceremony. The ceremony is a familiar one. The right hand is placed on the
breast and the following pledge recited in unison: "I pledge allegiance to my flag,
and to the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and
justice for all." While the words are spoken, teachers and pupils extend their right
hands in salute to the flag. The Gobitis family are affiliated with "Jehovah's Witnesses,"
for whom the Bible as the Word of God is the supreme authority. The children had
been brought up conscientiously to believe that such a gesture of respect for the
flag was forbidden by command of Scripture.
This U.S. Supreme Court has had occasion to say that
". . . the flag is the symbol of the Nation's power, the emblem of freedom in its
truest, best sense. . . . it signifies government resting on the consent of the governed;
liberty regulated by law; the protection of the weak against the strong; security
against the exercise of arbitrary power, and absolute safety for free institutions
against foreign aggression." Halter v. Nebraska, 205 U. S. 34, 205 U. S. 43
The case before us must be viewed as though the legislature of Pennsylvania had itself
formally directed the flag salute for the children of Minersville; had made no exemption
for children whose parents were possessed of conscientious scruples like those of
the Gobitis family, ...
The precise issue, then, for us to decide is whether the legislatures of the
various states and the authorities in a thousand counties and school districts of
this country are barred from determining the appropriateness of various means to
evoke that unifying sentiment without which there can ultimately be no liberties,
civil or religious.
The Court did not seem to accept the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that a flag
salute was the same as making the flag or its leader into the place of God. They
... It mocks reason and denies our whole history to find in the allowance of
a requirement to salute our flag on fitting occasions the seeds of sanction for obeisance
to a leader.
Yet, the Court seemed to have sympathy for the parent’s position when they said:
The wisdom of training children in patriotic impulses by those compulsions which
necessarily pervade so much of the educational process is not for our independent
judgment. Even were we convinced of the folly (foolishness) of such a measure (requiring
all to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance), such belief would be no
proof of its unconstitutionality.
But when balancing the issues of parents rights (with whom they seem to indicate
sympathy) and public school rights, the Court declares:
... So to hold would, in effect, make us the school board for the country. That
authority has not been given to this Court, nor should we assume it.
We are dealing here with the ... the best way to train children for their place in
society. Because of ...of reluctance to permit a single, iron-cast system of education
to be imposed upon a nation compounded of so many strains, we have held that, even
though public education is one of our most cherished democratic institutions, the
Bill of Rights bars a state from compelling all children to attend the public schools.
Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U. S. 510.
But it is a very different thing for this Court to exercise censorship over the conviction
of legislatures that a particular program or exercise will best promote in the minds
of children who attend the common schools an attachment to the institutions of their
... Except where the transgression of constitutional liberty is too plain for
argument, personal freedom is best maintained ... That the flag salute is an allowable
portion of a school program for those who do not invoke conscientious scruples is
surely not debatable. But for us to insist that, though the ceremony may be required,
exceptional immunity must be given to dissidents, ...
PARENTING CONCERNS: The preciousness of the family relation, the authority and independence
which give dignity to parenthood, indeed the enjoyment of all freedom, presuppose
the kind of ordered society which is summarized by our flag. .. . That is to say,
the process may be utilized so long as men's right to believe as they please, to
win others to their way of belief, and their right to assemble in their chosen places
of worship for the devotional ceremonies of their faith, are all fully respected.
Judicial review, itself a limitation on popular government, is a fundamental part
of our constitutional scheme. But to the legislature no less than to courts is committed
the guardianship of deeply cherished liberties. See Missouri, K. & T. Ry. Co. v.
May, 194 U. S. 267, 194 U. S. 270. Where all the effective means of inducing political
changes are left free from interference, education in the abandonment of foolish
legislation is itself a training in liberty.
The High Court may believe that the legislature and school may have gone to far,
but did not see that it had authority to substitute its judgment for that of the
state and local governments.
To fight out the wise use of legislative authority in the forum of public opinion
and before legislative assemblies, rather than to transfer such a contest to the
judicial arena, serves to vindicate the self-confidence of a free people.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling in favor of the Jehovah Witness
parents. So, that if the children wanted to attend public schools they would have
to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
Wikipedia alleges: Following the Minersville School District v. Gobitis decision,
the West Virginia Legislature amended its statutes and directed... "for the purpose
of teaching, fostering and perpetuating the ideals, principles and spirit of Americanism,
and increasing the knowledge of the organization and machinery of the government."
The West Virginia State Board of Education was directed to "prescribe the courses
of study covering these subjects" for public schools.
The Board of Education on January 9, 1942, adopted a resolution containing recitals
taken largely from the Court's Gobitis opinion and ordering that the salute to the
flag become "a regular part of the program of activities in the public schools,
" that all teachers and pupils "shall be required to participate in the salute
honoring the Nation represented by the Flag; provided, however, that refusal to salute
the Flag be regarded as an Act of insubordination, and shall be dealt with accordingly."
NOTE: Since the Minersville School District v. Gobitis decision, Japan had bombed
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii sinking several U.S. Navy ships and killing thousands. President
Roosevelt had appeared before Congress and declared:
Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States
of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the
Empire of Japan.
This 1943 case marked the first time the Supreme Court ever conceded students had
First Amendment rights during our participation in World War II and one might expect
the Court to have been moved by patriotic fervor act and uphold the laws.
The West Virginia State Board of Education passed a law requiring all students to
salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Several students and their parents
who were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses challenged the policy, arguing their
religion prevented them from swearing allegiance to anyone but God, and so they could
not recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Citizens of the United States and of West Virginia, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses
brought suit in the United States District Court for themselves and others similarly
situated asking its injunction to restrain enforcement of these laws and regulations
against Jehovah's Witnesses.