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West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette


The majority opinion in Barnette is one of the Court's greatest and most sweeping statements about the fundamental freedoms memorialized in the Bill of Rights.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have a long history of evoking the First Amendment to challenge state laws. In 1940, they lost a major court battle in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, in which the Supreme Court voted 8-1 that a Jehovah's Witness child could be expelled from a public school in Minersville, Pennsylvania, for refusing to salute the American flag on religious grounds. This outcome had been thought to be a product of pre-war concerns about national loyalty--especially in view of Justice Frankfurter's discussion in the majority opinion of how only the "felt necessities" of society can override the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Gobitis produced a backlash. Some members of society interpreted the decision to mean that the Jehovah's Witnesses were un-American, and attacks on them increased, particularly after the United States entered World War II in 1941. These actions in turn sparked a reaction, and critics of the Gobitis decision proliferated. Even the American Legion supported a proposed law that would make saluting the flag a voluntary activity. Walter Barnette, a Jehovah's Witness, chose this moment to bring a suit challenging the West Virginia flag salute law, which had been modeled on the Court's opinion in Gobitis.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia granted Barnette's request that the state school board be enjoined from enforcing the flag salute requirement. The school board then appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette - Significance, Supreme Court Holds That Compulsory Flag Ceremonies Violate Constitutional Guarantees Of Free Speech, The Flag Salute