Saluting The Barnette Ruling: 75 Years Later, A Key First Amendment Case Brought By Jehovah's Witnesses Remains Relevant.

Author:Hayes, Liz

A U.S. Supreme Court opinion issued 75 years ago this month forms the unlikely connection between former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick and two 1940s West Virginia schoolgirls named Gathie and Marie Barnett.

The Barnett sisters--ages 9 and 8 stepped into the national spotlight and constitutional law history in early 1942 when they were expelled from their four-room schoolhouse in Charleston for refusing to salute the American flag.

The girls were Jehovah's Witnesses, a Christian denomination that in the 1930s and '40s became known for door-to-door and street-corner evangelism, refusal to serve in the military and refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Witnesses believe saluting the flag is equivalent to idolatry; they say their allegiance is to their God, not the government or its symbols.

The Pledge of Allegiance was becoming mandatory in schools amid wartime nationalism, and refusal to salute was seen by many as unpatriotic. When the Barnetts returned to school from winter break--a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into World War II--the girls were expelled when they continued to refuse to salute. The expulsion led to the federal lawsuit West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

The law was on the school board's side at the time, thanks to a Supreme Court decision in a nearly identical case, Minersville School District v. Gobitis. The court in 1940 had ruled that two Jehovah's Witness schoolchildren in Pennsylvania--Lillian Gobitas, 12, and her younger brother William, 10--could be compelled to salute the flag. (The Barnett and Gobitas children's last names were misspelled in the court cases.)

Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the near-unanimous majority opinion in the Gobitis case that stressed the importance of "national cohesion" and "national security," and credited flag salutes with helping "to promote in the minds of children who attend the common schools an attachment to the institutions of their country." (At that time, students did a stiff-armed salute toward the flag, a practice that was replaced with the hand-overheart gesture during World War II.)

Justice Harlan Fiske Stone was the lone dissenter. He wrote that forcing children to participate in flag salutes "does more than suppress freedom of speech, and more than prohibit the free exercise of religion. ... For, by this law, the state seeks to coerce these children to express a sentiment which, as they interpret it, they do not entertain, and which violates their deepest religious convictions."

In interviews as an adult, Lillian Gobitas Klose reflected on the ostracism and threats of violence her family faced in their small coal-mining community in eastern Pennsylvania following the court's decision. Her brother was beaten, she was taunted and local churches led boycotts of her father's store.

"It got real ugly. People, they thought we were Communists, Nazis. They felt real righteous about it," said Klose at age 64 in a 1988 interview with The Morning...

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