Minersville School District v. Gobitis 1940

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Minersville School District v. Gobitis 1940

Petitioners: Minersville School District, et al.

Respondents: Walter Gobitis, et al.

Petitioners' Claim: That requiring school students to say the pledge of allegiance does not violate the First Amendment freedom of religion.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: Joseph W. Henderson

Chief Lawyers for Respondents: George K. Gardner and Joseph R. Rutherford

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter (writing for the Court), Charles Evans Hughes, James Clark McReynolds, Frank Murphy, Stanley Forman Reed, Owen Josephus Roberts

Justices Dissenting: Harlan Fiske Stone

Date of Decision: June 3, 1940

Decision: The Court upheld the law requiring students to salute the flag.

Significance: In 1940, while America was being pulled into World War II, the Supreme Court made national loyalty more important than the freedom of religion. Three years later, however, the Court decided that forcing students to say the pledge of allegiance violates the First Amendment freedom of speech.

Freedom of religion in America suffered a loss in Minersville School District v. Gobitis. The case began around 1940 in Minersville, Pennsylvania, where the school board required teachers and students to salute the American flag each day.

Lillian and William Gobitis were Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to salute the flag. Jehovah's Witnesses is a form of Christianity that makes obedience to the Bible more important than following the laws of government. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that saluting the American flag violates the Bible's command not to worship anyone or anything except God.

The Minersville school district expelled the Gobitis children from school for their refusal to salute the flag. Their parents enrolled them in private school, but it cost too much for the family to afford. The Gobitis family decided to send the children back to public school, and their father filed a lawsuit to prevent the Minersville school district from forcing the children to say the pledge of allegiance. Mr. Gobitis got the order he wanted from the trial court, so Minersville appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Country before religion

In an 8–1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and ruled in favor of the school district. Writing for the Court, Justice Felix Frankfurter said the case was a battle between the freedom of religion and the power of government.

Justice Frankfurter agreed that the freedom of religion is important, and is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says that the federal government "shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." State and local governments have to obey the First Amendment freedom of religion under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Due Process Clause prevents states from unlawfully taking away a person's life, liberty (or freedom), and property. School boards, such as the Minersville school district, are part of local government. Therefore, they must obey the freedom of religion.

Justice Frankfurter also agreed that the freedom of religion includes the right to choose one's religious beliefs and to reject others. He said that the First Amendment prevents the government from interfering with a person's religious beliefs.

Justice Frankfurter said, however, that the freedom of belief does not excuse people from obeying laws that relate to their duties as American citizens. One of those duties is to have a sense of national unity, which is respect for America as a country of people dedicated to freedom. Justice Frankfurter said that national unity is the government's most important goal. He went so far as to say that without national unity, America would fall apart and be unable to protect the freedom of religion.

When balancing the freedom of religion against the government's interest in creating national unity, the Court decided in favor of national unity. The Court said that school boards could force students to say the pledge of allegiance without violating their freedom of religion.

Where's the freedom of belief?

Justice Harlan Fiske Stone wrote a dissenting opinion, which means that he disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Stone believed that forcing students to say a pledge that was against their religious beliefs was the very evil the First Amendment was designed to prevent. It was the same as forcing students to say something that they did not believe.

In Justice Stone's opinion, state governments could encourage national unity without interfering with religion by requiring students to study American history. He said that learning about American government and the rights protected under the U.S. Constitution would "tend to inspire patriotism and love of country." Forcing students to say a pledge that offended their religion might destroy national loyalty.

Freedom restored

Historians say Minersville was the result of patriotism surrounding World War II. The Minersville decision, however, did not last long. Three years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), Jehovah's Witnesses from West Virginia challenged another school board that forced them to salute the American flag. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that the law violated the First Amendment freedom of speech, which is the right to speak one's mind.

The Supreme Court, however, still rules against the freedom of religion to protect the general welfare of society. For example, in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court said that Oregon could prevent Native Americans from using peyote, a drug, in their sacramental ceremonies.


T he Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. As published that year in a magazine called The Youth's Companion,it said, "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all." Later these words were changed three times to write the pledge as it is today. The most controversial change came in 1954, when Congressman Louis Rabaut suggested adding the words "under God" to the pledge. Opponents said the change would violate the separation of church and state. Congress, however, voted to approve the change, and children across America now begin each school day by pledging allegiance to "one Nation under God."

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Religion. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Gay, Kathlyn. Church and State: Government and Religion in the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Kleeberg, Irene Cumming. Separation of Church and State. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Stevens, Leonard A. Salute! The Case of the Bible vs. the Flag. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1973.

Swanson, June. I Pledge Allegiance. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1990.

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