During the 1940s, the United States Supreme Court discussed two cases in which the majority disputed with the rights of individuals. In the first case, Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the court ruled that all students had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while saluting the flag in the classroom. However, the Supreme Court faced the same issue three years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette and was against a state school order that public school students must participate in a patriotic ceremony.
The issues of the Barnette case came from the decision of the Minersville School District v. Gobitis case. Lillian and William Gobitis came home from school and told their parents that they had been expelled from their school in Minersville Pennsylvania because they did not salute to the American flag during the morning announcements. The Gobitis family belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which bans any act that is like worshipping an image or idol, which is an offense against God. Walter Gobitis, Lillian and William’s father, asked the Minersville School Board to excuse his children from the flag-salute requirement. When the Board refused, Gobitis removed his children from the public school and enrolled them into a private school, which did not require the patriotic requirements. He then sued in the federal district in Philadelphia to stop the school board from requiring children to salute to the flag. Gobitis argued that his children’s rights to religious liberty under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution were violated. The lawyers of the Minersville School Board disagreed that the flag-salute requirement was a way to teach good citizenship and that it was a “secular regulation” that had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with patriotic education. They also argued that if they let students opt out of the patriotic ceremonies, it would conflict with the school’s responsibility to promote national loyalty and unity. However, the Court voted 8-1 to uphold the school district’s requirement that students take part in the daily flag-salute exercises.
The Court agreed to overturn their decision within the Gobitis result. They stated, “Since we joined in the opinion of the Gobitis case, we think this is an appropriate occasion to state that we now believe that it was also wrongly decided.” There were many negative responses to the Gobitis decision. Over 170 newspapers throughout the country opposed the Court’s decision. For example, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated: “We think this decision of the United States Supreme Court is dead wrong.” Also, the Gobitis decision caused Jehovah's Witnesses to become regular targets of harassment and cruel treatment. The persecution of these people concerned the justices. Two years after the Gobitis decision, the justices publicly stated that they changed their minds about the requirement of flag salutation in schools.
After declaring the change in flag-salute requirements in 1942, public school officials in Charleston, West Virginia expelled several Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as the children of Walter Barnette for the refusal of participating in the flag salutation ceremony. Barnette asked the federal district to stop enforcement of the requirements of the patriotic exercises. A three-judge panel granted Barnette’s request. Judge John J. Parker stated that the flag-salute requirement was “violative of religious liberty when required of persons holding the religious views of the plaintiffs.” After the board’s decision, no more Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from schools for not saluting to the flag. The decision was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and by a 6-3 vote they ruled that it was unconstitutional for public school officials to require students to salute and pledge allegiance to the flag at the risk of expulsion from school on June 14th, 1943. “The Barnette Court couched its decision in language evoking freedom of speech. The choice to salute the flag was speech, the Court said, and the First Amendment protected individuals from compelled speech. It almost did not matter that the Jehovah's Witnesses had religious objections to pledging allegiance to the American flag; neither they, nor anyone, could be forced to verbally espouse beliefs they did not hold.”
Justice Robert Black wrote the opinion of the court. Justice Jackson did not concentrate only on the violation of the First Amendment right to free religion but he based his opinion on several individual freedoms in the Bill of Rights, especially the freedom of speech. He thought the issue in the Barnette case was whether the government had authority under the Constitution to force the participation in any kind of public ceremony regardless of the person’s religious beliefs. He stated that the government had no right to interfere with individuals protected right to freedom of expression. He stated, “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.'' In response to the school officials violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments when they punished students and their parents for the students’ refusal to salute the American flag, Jackson stated:
“The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States, protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures—Boards of Education not excepted. These have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual.”
Hugo Black, William O. Douglas and Frank Murphy had concurring opinions of the West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette case. They were the most passionate supporters of the First Amendment. "Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws enacted by the people's elected representatives within the bounds of express constitutional prohibitions."
Justice Felix Frankfurter opened his dissenting opinion stating the Nazi atrocities against Jews during the world war that was going on at the time of the Barnette decision. He expressed his sense of judicial duty, which was to observe and respect the Gobitis decision, which was the requirement in public schools to salute to the U.S flag. He argued that the Court had violated its bounds by imposing its judgments on the people instead of decisions of the elected representatives in government. He felt that the branches of government and the judiciary should not overturn these decisions. He also objected to Jackson’s argument that questions affiliated with the Bill of Rights should be beyond the reach of local officials and legislatures who supported the people’s decision. Despite his dissenting opinion, Jackson’s opinion in Barnette is considered one of the greatest statements on civil liberties ever written.
As a result of the West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette case, no more Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from their schools for the nonparticipation in the patriotic ceremonies. Students possess constitutional rights under the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. Students are entitled to the freedom of expression and they do not have to salute to the U.S. flag if they do not believe to. Today, students may choose not to participate in patriotic ceremonies held in their schools.
I feel that the Court made the right decision in abolishing the requirement to salute to the flag. If everyone is entitled to protection of the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, they should not be penalized or punished for not doing something they do not believe in. There are certain “unalienable” rights that we, as human beings, hold. These rights cannot be, or should never be, taken away from us.