Minersville School District v. Gobitis

Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940), was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States involving the religious rights of public school students under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court ruled that public schools could compel students—in this case, Jehovah's Witnesses—to salute the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance despite the students' religious objections to these practices.[1] This decision led to increased persecution of Witnesses in the United States. The Supreme Court overruled this decision three years later, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.[2]

Minersville School District v. Gobitis
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued April 25, 1940
Decided June 3, 1940
Full case nameMinersville School District, Board of Education of Minersville School District, et al. v. Walter Gobitis, et al.
Citations310 U.S. 586 (more)
60 S. Ct. 1010; 84 L. Ed. 1375; 1940 U.S. LEXIS 1136; 17 Ohio Op. 417; 127 A.L.R. 1493
Case history
PriorJudgment for plaintiffs, injunction granted, 24 F. Supp. 271 (E.D. Pa. 1938); affirmed, 108 F.2d 683 (3d Cir. 1939); cert. granted, 309 U.S. 645 (1940).
The First Amendment does not require States to excuse public school students from saluting the American flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on religious grounds. Third Circuit reversed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Charles E. Hughes
Associate Justices
James C. McReynolds · Harlan F. Stone
Owen Roberts · Hugo Black
Stanley F. Reed · Felix Frankfurter
William O. Douglas · Frank Murphy
Case opinions
MajorityFrankfurter, joined by Hughes, McReynolds, Roberts, Black, Reed, Douglas, Murphy
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. I, XIV
Overruled by
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)


Jehovah's Witnesses and compulsory flag pledgesEdit

Mandatory flag pledges in public schools were motivated by patriotic fervor 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.

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."[3] 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.[4]

In September in Lynn, Massachusetts, a third-grader and Jehovah's Witness named Carleton Nichols[5] refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and was expelled from school.[6] The Nichols incident received widespread media attention, and other Witness students soon followed suit. Rutherford gave a radio address praising Nichols,[7] 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.[8]

Facts of the caseEdit

Walter Gobitas[9] 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 was predominantly 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 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.[10]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]


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.[11]

Third CircuitEdit

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.[12]

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.[13]

Oral argumentEdit

The Court heard oral arguments on 25 April. Joseph Rutherford, 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.[14] The ACLU and the Committee on the Bill of Rights of the American Bar Association filed amicus curiae briefs.[14]

Opinion of the courtEdit

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 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."[15]

Dissenting opinionEdit

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

The guarantees of civil liberty are but guarantees of freedom of the human mind and spirit and of reasonable freedom and opportunity to express them ... The very essence of the liberty which they guarantee is the freedom of the individual from compulsion as to what he shall think and what he shall say ...

Effects of the decisionEdit

On June 9, a mob of 2,500 burned the Kingdom Hall in Kennebunkport, Maine.[16] 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 June 22, the people of Parco, Wyoming tarred and feathered another.

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?"[17]

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appealed publicly for calm, while newspaper editorials and the American legal community condemned the Gobitis decision as a blow to liberty. On June 8, 1942, Supreme Court Justices Black, Douglas and Murphy stated in their opinion on Jones v. City of Opelika that, although they had concurred with the majority in the Gobitis case, they now believed that that case had been wrongly decided.[18]

Subsequent historyEdit

Partly because of the violent reaction to its decision, including the lynching of Jehovah Witnesses,[19] the ruling did not stand for long. Frank Murphy in particular regretted his decision, and instructed his clerk to look out for an opportunity to revisit the issue.[20] 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.[21]

On 14 June 1943 (Flag Day), the court handed down West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. In addition to Murphy, Justices Black and Douglas also reversed their opinions, resulting in a 6–3 vote. The majority opinion written by Robert Jackson echoed Justice 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".[22]

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 of being unpatriotic, and even of being Nazi sympathizers.[23]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940).
  2. ^ West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).
  3. ^ "United States of America", 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, ©1975 Watch Tower, page 168
  4. ^ The Gobitas family seems to have made such a personal conscientious decision in the weeks between the convention and the beginning of the new school year (typically about September 1 in the United States). According to her later written account, then-eleven-year-old Lillian Gobitas and her ten-year-old brother were impressed by Rutherford's answer, and they "talked about it with our parents and looked up Exodus 20:4-6, 1 John 5:21, and Matthew 22:21. Mom and Dad never pressured us or made us feel guilty. When school opened in September, we were very much aware of what we ought to do." - See Lillian Gobitas memoir "The Courage to Put God First", Awake!, July 22, 1993, ©1993 Watch Tower, page 13
  5. ^ Nichols name was misspelled in some reports, and in the early case Carlton B. Nicholls v. Mayor and School Committee of Lynn (Massachusetts), wherein Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that no allowance need be made for religious belief by mandatory school flag salutes. See "'Defending and Legally Establishing the Good News'", Jehovah's Witnesses – Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, ©1993 Watch Tower, page 684-685
  6. ^ "United States of America", 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, ©1975 Watch Tower, page 168, "[In addition to Nichols, at least one other Witness student,] Barbara Meredith, took the same stand at her school in Sudbury, Massachusetts, the same day." But her situation did not reach the press, as she had a teacher who was tolerant and did not make an issue out of it."
  7. ^ Anecdotally, Rutherford's radio address further solidified the resolution of Witnesses and their children to pointedly refuse to salute the flag. Lillian Gobitas writes that for the first few weeks of school in September 1935 she had silently mouthed, but not actually uttered, the pledge; she changed her view, she writes, when on ...
    "October 6, Brother Rutherford made a coast-to-coast radio broadcast entitled "Saluting a Flag." He explained that we respect the flag but that going through rituals before an image or emblem was actually idolatry. Our relationship with Jehovah would strictly forbid this.
    "On October 22, Bill [Gobitas, her brother], just ten years old, came home from school all smiles. "I stopped saluting the flag!" he said triumphantly. "The teacher tried to put up my arm, but I held on to my pocket."
    "The next morning, heart pounding, I went to my teacher before class so that I wouldn't weaken. "Miss Shofstal," I stammered, "I can't salute the flag anymore. The Bible says at Exodus chapter 20 that we can't have any other gods before Jehovah God." To my surprise she just hugged me and said what a dear girl I was. Well, when the flag ceremony time came, I did not join in the salute."
    -"The Courage to Put God First", Awake!, July 22, 1993, Watch Tower, page 13
  8. ^ Those who heeded this call and challenged the practice of pledging the flag were accused of working with or being duped by German sympathizers. Ironically, Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany under Hitler rule were sentenced to concentration camps for the same reason, namely the denial to salute national symbols. A further irony lay in the fact that, at the time, many flag pledges were performed not with the right hand over the heart as they are today, but instead with an outstretched right hand, a gesture which has now become associated with the "Sieg Heil" salute of the Nazis.
  9. ^ The name was misspelled "Gobitis" in the Court's decision, but was in fact "Gobitas." Peters, Shawn Francis Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution, pg. 13 (University of Kansas Press: 2000)
  10. ^ Panchyk, Richard (2007). "sidebar:Interview with Lillian Gobitas Klouse". Our Supreme Court: A History with 14 Activities. Chicago Review Press, Inc. p. 77.
  11. ^ Gobitis v. Minersville School District, 24 F. Supp. 271 (E.D. Pa. 1938).
  12. ^ Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 108 F.2d 683 (3d Cir. 1939).
  13. ^ Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 309 U.S. 645 (1940).
  14. ^ a b Manwaring, Render Unto Caesar
  15. ^ "Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586". The Oyez Project (U.S. Supreme Court media). 1940. Retrieved 2007-10-25.
  16. ^ "The Courage to Put God First". Awake!: 15. 1993-07-22.
  17. ^ Shawn Francis Peters Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of Rights Revolution (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2000) 84.
  18. ^ Jones v. City of Opelika, 316 U.S. 584 (1942).
  19. ^ Shawn Francis Peters in his book Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution And the Dawn of the Rights Revolution
  20. ^ University of Michigan Law Quadrangle Notes on Frank Murphy. Archived 2010-08-06 at WebCite
  21. ^ Leming, Robert S. ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN. Teaching about Landmark Dissents in United States Supreme Court Cases. ERIC Digest.
  22. ^ Konkoly, Toni. Law, Power & Personality, The Supreme Court, Famous Dissents: Minersville School District v. Gobitis. Public Broadcasting Service.
  23. ^ Sittser, Gerald Lawson (1 June 1997). A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches & the Second World War. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 186. ISBN 978-0-8078-2333-0. Retrieved 21 May 2012.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit