Tomorrow is Flag Day, and the anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that has its roots in West Virginia.
The court’s June 14, 1943, ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette can be seen as something of a pleasing paradox: by giving schoolchildren freedom from the requirement that they salute the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the justices actually reaffirmed our country’s highest ideals – the precious freedoms symbolized by the flag.
The Barnette case began just outside the capital, in Kanawha County. Terrible harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses had unfolded in West Virginia and through much of the nation following a 1940 high court ruling that held public school students had to salute the flag and say the pledge as schools held their opening ceremonies each morning.
Citing their church’s belief that allegiance is reserved for Jehovah God alone, Witnesses refused to say the pledge or salute the flag. They explained that they felt deeply devoted to the United States, but would not comply with the earthly mandates.
Public school systems in the United States had first begun to require flag salutes during the Spanish-American War, with more adopting the mandates during the patriotic fervor of World War I.
In 1935, Jehovah’s Witness leader J.F. Rutherford spoke out on the practice at a Witness convention, urging those in attendance to forego saluting an American flag or any such “earthly emblem” – calling such practices an outright unfaithfulness to God.
That fall, a third-grader in Massachusetts refused to say the pledge and was expelled from school. Across the country, other Witness children did the same and schools took similar action against them. By the end of 1935, the anti-pledge stance had become the official doctrine of the Witness church. In many communities, “Kingdom schools” opened to educate all the young Witnesses who’d been kicked out of public school settings.
Witness leaders also decided to raise the issue of religious freedom in court.
But after the U.S. Supreme Court finally weighed in on the issue in 1940 in Minersville v. Gobitis, things got much worse for members of the church.
In an 8-to-1 decision, the high court upheld the mandatory flag salute.
In writing the majority decision, Justice Felix Frankfurter described the Pennsylvania school district’s flag-salute requirement as a secular policy put in place to encourage young people’s patriotism – and, the court explained, the nation needed patriotic citizens.
He wrote that even if a few Witnesses were allowed to be excused from the practice, the effect would be “demoralizing,” and soon there could be widespread disregard both for the American flag and for our nation’s values.
Justice Harlan F. Stone alone dissented, writing: “The guarantees of civil liberty are but guarantees of freedom of the human mind and spirit and of reasonable freedom and opportunity to express them … the very essence of the liberty which they guarantee is the freedom of the individual from compulsion as to what he shall think and what he shall say.”
Starting just days after the decision was handed down, attacks against Witnesses began to unfold nationwide, including:
+ The Kingdom Hall in Kennebunkport, Maine, is burned by a mob of 2,500;
+ Townspeople in Rawlins, Wyo., brutally beat five Witnesses;
+ A Witness in Parco, Wyo., is tarred and feathered;
+ A Witness in Nebraska is lured from his home, dragged away and castrated;
+ All 60 Witnesses in Litchfield, Ill., are jailed, ostensibly for their own protection;
+ In Jackson, Miss., a mob descends on a trailer park where Witnesses lived and marches them out of town;
+ In Little Rock, Ark., crowds beat Witnesses with pipes and screwdrivers;
+ In Rockville, Md., police officers assist a mob in breaking up a church gathering of Witnesses;
+ and in the West Virginia community of Richwood, the police chief gathers Witnesses, forces them to drink castor oil, ties the group together with police rope and parades them down a main street before forcing them out of town.
The American Civil Liberties Union would soon inform Justice Department officials that more than 1,000 Witnesses had come under physical attack in hundreds of communities across the nation.
Then that fall in Kanawha County, young Witnesses who would not salute the flag were expelled from school. Years later, some of them recalled feeling afraid and humiliated. One boy had his fifth-grade teacher attempt to physically force his hand from his pocket to make the salute.
Gobitis clearly had unleashed something dark and terrible. Across the country, the legal community condemned the decision, describing it as bad law and a blow to liberty.
But on the streets, many patriotic Americans clung to the high court’s ruling. A Southern sheriff is said to have explained the rationale behind forcing Witnesses out of town this way: “They’re traitors; the Supreme Court says so. Ain’t you heard?”
In Kanawha County, a group of Witness parents that believed the school system was unfairly depriving their children from an education because of their religious views hired a lawyer. That case would eventually become West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
By 1943, when that case had made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Stone – the lone dissenter in Gobitis – had become Chief Justice. Two new members had been appointed to the court.
Also, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, two of the justices who’d ruled in favor of the mandatory flag salute in Gobitis, had changed their minds. Today, both men are seen as ardent defenders of the First Amendment.
“Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest,” the pair wrote in a concurring opinion in Barnette. “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.”
West Virginia’s role in this national saga isn’t always appreciated and it’s a piece of state history that continues to slip away. Just over two months ago, one of the schoolchildren involved in the case passed away in Huntington at age 80.
Gathie Ellen Edmonds was a Kanawha County native and lifelong Jehovah’s Witness.
Along with her younger sister Marie, she was among the schoolchildren whose stand against saluting the flag led to the landmark freedom of religion case. Their parents were the Barnetts; in the court filing, their surname became misspelled as Barnette.
This Flag Day, it’s the ideal time to pause and recall the words penned by Justice Robert Jackson in his majority opinion in Barnette. The Bill of Rights, he wrote, intended to place certain cherished freedoms “beyond the reach of majorities and officials. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”
— Christine Miller Ford is a writer and editor with the Spirit of Jefferson. Send feedback on this column to Christine@Spiritofjefferson.com