Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)

Summary

Billy Gobitis, a ten-year-old Pennsylvania public school student, refused to salute the American flag because doing so would have gone against his religious beliefs. Billy argued that his First Amendment rights to free speech and religious exercise meant the government could not force him to participate in the daily ceremony. The Court ruled against him, but three years later reversed itself in a similar case, finding that the First Amendment protected students’ rights to refrain from saluting the flag.

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Activity

Billy Gobitis had to choose between attending public school and exercising his religion. Billy was a ten-year-old elementary school student in 1935. A Jehovah’s Witness, he believed that saluting the flag is a form of idol worship, and a direct violation of the second commandment in the Bible. When Billy and his sister refused to participate in their public school’s required flag-saluting ceremony, they were expelled. Billy wrote a letter to the school board explaining, “I do not salute the flag because I have promised to do the will of God.” The school board did not change its position.

The Gobitis family was physically attacked and their family grocery store was boycotted. This caused great financial strain as the family faced the cost of sending the two children to private school. Their father sued on behalf of the children, saying the district’s policy violated his children’s religious freedom.

In 1940, the Supreme Court ruled on Billy’s case, Minersville School District v. Gobitis. The Court decided 8-1 in favor of the school policy, ruling that the government could require respect for the flag as a key symbol of national unity and a means of preserving national security. The Court held that the Pledge of Allegiance helps “to evoke that unifying element without which there can ultimately be no liberties, civil or religious…Exempting the Gobitis children make others less loyal to the country…. National unity is the basis of national security.” The Court rejected the claim that forcing Billy to say the pledge would violate his right to freely exercise his religion. The Court held that parents, not schools, are children’s primary religious instructors, and that the pledge requirement would not interfere with Billy’s religious upbringing.

The lone dissenter, Justice Harlan Stone, wrote a strongly-worded opinion. He argued that forcing students to say the pledge did violate the First Amendment because it abridged freedom of speech and prohibited the free exercise of religion. Stone continued, “[T]he state seeks to coerce these children to express a sentiment which …violates their deepest religious convictions. …The very essence of the liberty…is the freedom of the individual from compulsion as to what he shall think and what he shall say, at least where the compulsion is to bear false witness to his religion.”

Stone’s dissent became the basis for the Court’s ruling in a case it heard three years later. West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) was another case involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In that case, the Supreme Court reversed its decision in Billy’s case. The Court held that the right of free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution means the government cannot force anyone to salute the American flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Forcing people to have similar opinions was doomed to failure, and violated First Amendment principles: “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.”

Questions

  1. Why was Billy Gobitis expelled from school?
  2. How did Billy explain his actions to the school board?
  3. How did the Supreme Court rule in Billy’s case, Minersville v. Gobitas (1940)?
  4. What is the significance of a case the Supreme Court decided three years later, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)?
  5. Do you agree that national unity is a basis for national security? If so, should the government be able to compel national unity by requiring the Pledge of Allegiance?