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Minersville School District v. Gobitis

Nationalism In Time Of War Trumps The First Amendment

The basis for Gobitis's suit was the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which reads: "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." Writing for the Court, Justice Frankfurter found that even this prohibition had its limits:

Certainly the affirmative pursuit of one's convictions about the ultimate mystery of the universe and man's relation to it is placed beyond the reach of law. Government may not interfere with organized or individual expression of belief or disbelief . . . But the manifold character of man's religion may bring his conception of religious duty into conflict with the secular interests of his fellow-man . . . [T]o affirm that the freedom to follow conscience has itself no limits in the life of a society would deny that very plurality of principles which, as a matter of history, underlies protection of religious toleration.

As a matter of history, the individual beliefs of the Gobitis family were particularly at odds with the interests of most members of society in 1940, when America was on the brink of entering World War II. Also as a matter of history, the Court had legal precedent for enforcing the flag salute requirement. As far back as Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court had found that there could be a rational basis for punishing individuals for religiously motivated actions, so long as the state did not inquire into their beliefs. The issue in Reynolds, Mormon polygamy, was perhaps of a different order than refusing to pay homage to a symbol. For the Supreme Court in time of war, however, much more was at stake than a symbol: "We are dealing with an interest inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values," wrote Frankfurter. "National unity is the basis of national security."

Only one of the justices, Stone, disagreed with this opinion. Just three years later, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), a majority of the Court voted in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses in another flag salute case. Gobitis proved to be a highly criticized decision. It seemed to license abuse of religious nonconformists. The incidence of attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses in particular escalated dramatically. State authorities threatened to send children who refused to pledge allegiance to the flag to reformatories for juvenile delinquents. West Virginia passed a compulsory flag salute law modeled on the Court's opinion in Gobitis. Barnette, which used the First Amendment right of free speech as the grounds for overturning this law, was a marked retreat from everything Gobitis acknowledged.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Minersville School District v. Gobitis - Significance, Nationalism In Time Of War Trumps The First Amendment, Jehovah's Witnesses And Public Schools