Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

People all over the world consider America to be a great country, partly because of the many free­doms and rights it offers to its citizens. With these rights, as with any rights, come responsibilities. Some, such as obedience to laws and payment of taxes, are very clear, but oth­ers are more complicated and sometimes even controversial. Such responsibilities include those involving patriotism and participation in patriotic acts. Many peo­ple do not consider patriotism to be a responsibility, but many others, including former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, do. In his majority opinion in Minersville v. Gobitis, Justice Frankfurter called saluting the flag a “political responsibility” of loyal Americans.

Patriotic acts, however, are often con­troversial, because they sometimes inter­fere with certain religions. In 1935, two young Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lillian and William Gobitas, refused to participate in the flag-salute ceremony at their school because it interfered with their religious beliefs. When the school expelled these children, their father went to court to fight for their rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The case was so controversial that, by 1940, it had reached the Supreme Court. In Minersville v. Gobitis (a clerk misspelled the Gobitas name, and it appeared as “Gobitis” in all Court documents), the Court had to decide whether civil rights were more important than political responsibilities. Knowing their decision would set an important precedent for the future, the Court finally ruled that the Minersville School District did have the authority to force students to salute the flag even though this exercise interfered with their religious beliefs. However, three years later the Court reversed its ruling in West Virginia v. Burnette.

When analyzing the flag-salute contro­versy, it is very important to consider its origins. It actually began in Germany in 1933, when Adolf Hitler came into power. Hitler demanded that all Germans salute him, but Jehovah’s Witnesses refused, claiming that saluting Hitler amounted to worshipping his government, which vio­lated their religious convictions. They decided that because saluting Hitler went against their faith, saluting his flag was also improper. Jehovah’s Witnesses held firm in their position even after Nazis began persecuting them, and when World War II ended in 1945, over ten thousand Witnesses had suffered in con­centration camps.

The treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany horrified American Witness­es, but it also made them realize that saluting the flag violated their religious beliefs. They deduced that, because it was wrong to salute Hitler and his flag, it was also wrong to salute President Franklin Roosevelt and his flag. Joseph Rutherford, the leader of the American Witnesses, denounced compulsory flag-salute laws and asked all his followers to refuse to participate in the flag-salute ceremony.

Jehovah’s Witnesses make a valid point when explaining why they do not salute the flag. In Exodus 20:4, it says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Witnesses classify pledging allegiance to the flag as bowing down to a graven image, so they firmly refuse to participate in the flag-salute ceremony.

When Jehovah’s Witnesses took their stand and refused to salute the flag, many loyal Americans were aghast. They saw the flag-salute ceremony as one that instilled a sense of loyalty and devotion to the country, and they felt that refusing to participate showed disrespect for the government. People believed that anyone fortunate enough to have as many rights and liberties as Americans did should show respect for his or her country through patriotic acts, such as saluting the flag. For these reasons, many people believed that the government should make participation in the salute compulsory. The New York legislature had passed the first mandatory salute law in 1898. Only five states enacted flag-salute laws before World War I, but a national campaign to do exactly that began in 1919. By 1935, eighteen states had flag-salute legislation, and one hundred local school boards in other states had voted to compel all students to participate in the ceremony.

Lillian and William Gobitas were two of the many people who heard Ruther­ford condemn the flag salute, and they decided that they wanted to adhere to their faith and stop saluting the flag. The Gobitas children were not trying to disrespect the government in any way; they had sincere religious convictions, which prohibited saluting the flag. Although Pennsylvania did not have mandatory flag salute laws, the actions of the Gob­itas children appalled school Superintendent Charles Roudabush. After passing school policy to require students to participate in the flag salute ceremony, he expelled the Gobitas children for their “insubordination.”

Roudabush said, “It is evident that any religion which takes exception to this obligation or respect owed by every American to his country’s flag fosters a spirit of antagonism to his country, its laws, institutions, and traditions …. To every red-blooded American it stands for all that is pure and good, past and future of our beloved country, good and pure.”

William and Lillian both wrote letters to their school explaining why they did not salute the flag. Neither wanted to disrespect it, but both felt the need to follow their religious beliefs. William claimed that he did not salute the flag because he had promised to do the will of God, which meant he must not worship anything out of harmony with God’s law. He also insisted that his refusal to salute came from love of God, not disrespect of the country.

Lillian insisted that the Constitution of the United States was based upon religious freedom, so the government could not force her to disobey her religious beliefs. According to the dictates of her conscience, based on the Bible, she had to give “full allegiance to Jehovah God.”

The Gobitas family had many problems because of the children’s expulsions. Their father Walter had to pay a fine, neighbors physically attacked the family, and the town boycotted their grocery store. The family began suffering financial hardship, so Walter felt he should challenge the school’s decision to expel his children. He went to a Philadelphia court, with Judge Albert Maris presiding. He argued that in expelling his children, the school had deprived them of their rights to the freedoms of religion and speech guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

Lawyers defending the school claimed that the flag-salute had no religious con­tent and simply served as a “secular reg­ulation adopted for the reasonable pur­pose of inculcating patriotism.” In the end, Maris ruled in favor of the Gob­itases, stating that it was clear from the evidence “that the refusal of these two earnest Christian children to salute the flag cannot even remotely prejudice or imperil the safety, health, morals, property, or personal rights of their fellows.” He went on to compare the “sincerity of conviction and devotion to principle” that Lillian and William Gobitas displayed with “that which brought our pioneer ancestors across the sea to seek liberty of conscience in a new land.” He maintained that “our country’s safety surely does not depend upon the totalitarian idea of forcing all citizens into one common mold of thinking or acting or requiring them to render a lip service of loyalty in a manner which conflicts with their sincere religious convictions.” He ordered the Minersville School Board to readmit the Gobitas children and excuse them from participation in the flag-salute ceremony.

The school then appealed the decision, but the appellate court upheld Maris’s ruling unanimously. The opinion, written by Judge William Clark, called the compulsory flag-salute “abhorrent to the … love of God of the little girl and boy now seeking … protection.”

The school then opted to take the decision to the Supreme Court. Surprisingly, the Court went against the ruling of the lower courts, voting eight to one in favor of Minersville. In Justice Frankfurter’s majority opinion, he wrote that the Court had the “grave responsibility” of reconciling the conflicting claims of liberty and authority. He also said that “national unity is the basis of national security, and the flag is the symbol of our national unity.” He stated, “Such an exemption might introduce elements of difficulty into the school discipline … and cast doubts in the minds of the other children which would weaken the effect of the exercise.” Justice Frankfurter also wrote that “the mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities.” Here, he asserted that patriotic duties of Americans overrode their religious convictions, and that political responsibilities were more important than civil rights.

The Court hoped that the decision would be unanimous, but one man, Jus­tice Harlan Fiske Stone, dissented. In his contradicting opinion, he wrote:

“Even though we believe that such compulsions will contribute to national unity, there are other ways to teach loyal­ty and patriotism which are the sources of national unity, than by compelling the pupil to affirm that which he does not believe and by commanding a form of affirmance which violates his religious convictions.”

The Supreme Court wrongfully decid­ed this case because its ruling violated both the first and fourteenth amend­ments. When making their decision, the justices Jet several outside factors influ­ence their decision, specifically the time period in which the events happened and the public’s negative feelings towards those who were different, especially Jeho­vah’s Witnesses.

By the time this case reached the Supreme Court, it was 1940, and the United States was on the brink of World War II. A nationalistic fervor was sweep­ing the country, and people thought it was extremely important to show loyalty and support to the nation. The story of two young students who did not want to salute the flag gained national attention and the children came across as unpatri­otic, which greatly upset the country.

Another factor which influenced the Court’s decision was the fact that people were jumpy and suspicious of everyone. They were expecting Communists to show up at any moment, and they looked upon everyone distrustfully. Because Wit­nesses differed from the norm, they were the targets of much hostility and resentment. The public also considered Wit­nesses to be unpatriotic “fifth colum­nists.” Witnesses annoyed and angered people because of their door-to-door and street corner preaching and their controversial beliefs and ideas.

When the Court issued its decision, the public took it as a go-ahead to assault Jehovah’s Witnesses, and this resulted in Witnesses all over the country being attacked. In Maine, rioters burned down a Kingdom Hall, and in Maryland, police assisted a mob in dispersing a Bible meet­ing. In Illinois, an entire town mobbed sixty Witnesses who were canvassing it, and in Nebraska, vigilantes kidnapped, beat, and castrated a group of Witnesses. These were just a few of the attacks. The American Civil Liberties Union reported to the Justice Department that people attacked nearly fifteen hundred Witness­es in more than three hundred communi­ties nationwide in the three years follow­ing the Gobitis decision.

Three years after the Gobitis case, in 1943, the Court realized that its ruling had sparked these attacks, and the justices wanted to reverse their decision. Soon, a school in West Virginia expelled a stu­dent, Walter Barnette, for refusing to salute the flag. The facts of the case were virtually identical to those from the Gob­itis case, so the lawyer for West Virginia made no preparations, planning simply to mention the Gobitis precedent and win the argument. However, when he tried this, it did not work, and in the end, the Court ruled six to three in favor of Bar­nette.

Justice Robert Jackson, in his majority opinion, wrote that, “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous … is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”

Justice Black and Justice Douglas con­curred with the Court, and wrote their reasons for changing their views since the Gobitis case:

Neither our domestic tranquility in pence nor our martial effort in war depend on compelling little children to participate in a ceremony which ends in nothing for them but a fear of spiritual condemnation. If, as we think, their fears are groundless, time and reason are the proper antidotes for their errors. The ceremonial, when enforced against conscientious objectors, more likely to defeat than to serve its high purpose, is a handy implement for disguised religious persecution. As such, it is inconsistent with our Constitution’s plan and purpose.

In essence, the Court was now saying that the government could not require a person to salute the flag and that civil rights were more important than political responsibilities. This ruling surprised many people, because it completely reversed the Gobitis decision.

There are several factors to consider in order to understand why the Court’s views changed. First of all, a new majority ruled the Court, because it had two new members and three others had changed their minds. Also, the Court became worried because the public con­sidered it to be the ultimate arbiter of jus­tice, and the widely publicized attacks on the Witnesses damaged this image. In addition, Americans had seen pictures of Nazis saluting the flag, and they began to think that forcing children to pledge seemed too Fascist, because there was a disturbing similarity between the raised­-arm American salute and the stiff-arm Nazi salute.

Citizens in America have many rights and privileges, but accompanying these rights are many responsibilities. Many people consider saluting the flag to be a political responsibility, so it seems understandable that a person who refuses to fol­low through with this responsibility should not have all of his or her rights. However, two of these rights are freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and the responsibility of flag saluting can violate both of those freedoms. So which should come first: responsibility or right? In 1940 the Supreme Court faced this difficult question, and it became the justices’ job to make an important ruling that would set a precedent for all future deci­sions. In Minersville v. Gobitis, the Court decided that the political responsibility of saluting the flag was more important than the civil rights of students, and that authority ruled over liberty. However, the Court soon realized that this decision violated the Constitution, and it fixed its mistake three years later, in West Virginia v. Barnette. In that case, the Court com­pletely overturned the Gobitis ruling by deciding that civil rights outweigh politi­cal responsibilities, which remains the prevailing viewpoint today.


Text of William Gobitas’ Letter

Minersville, Pa.
Nov. 5, 1935

Our School Directors
Dear Sirs

I do not salute the flag because I have promised to do the will of God. That means that I must not worship anything out of harmony with God’s law. In the twentieth chapter of Exodus it is stated, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor bow down to them nor serve them for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” I am a true follower of Christ. I do not salute the flag not because I do not love my country, but I love my country and I love God more and I must obey his commandments.

Your pupil,
Billy Gobitas


For Further Reading

Harrison, Barbara Grizzuit. Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jeho­vah’s Witnesses. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Hentoff, Nat. Living the Bill of Rights: How to Be an Authentic American. Berke­ley: University of California Press, 1999.

Hesse, Hans, ed. Persecution and Resis­tance of Jehovah’s Witnesses During the Nazi Regime, 1933-1945. Bremen, Ger­many: Edition Temmen 2001.

Lee, Francis Graham. Church-State Rela­tions: (Major Issues in American History). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Manwaring, David Roger. Render Unto Caesar: The Flag-Salute Controversy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. London: Secker and Warburg, 1945.


Pennsylvania History Day is part of National History Day, a yearlong education program, founded in 1974 to reinvigorate the teaching and learning of history at the elementary and secondary school levels. Schol­arships are presented at the national level and awards and special prizes at the state and national level are given to both students and teachers. Students compete at the junior level, sixth through eighth grade, and at the senior level, ninth through twelfth grade, in exhibit, documentary, paper, or per­formance categories. State win­ners are announced each May at an awards ceremony and national winners during the national contest each June. For more informa­tion about Pennsylvania History Day, visit the National History Day in Pennsylvania website. For information about National History Day, visit the National History Day website.


Zehra Hussain is sixteen years old and a junior at Blue Mountain High School in Schuylkill Haven, Schuylkill County. She was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, and, at age five, moved to Pennsylvania with her family to Cressona. Her favorite hobbies are writing, drawing, playing basketball, and computer games, while balancing her interests by pro­moting good health among teens and chil­dren. She is a member of BUSTED!, a special task force devoted to Pennsylvania’s youth anti-tobacco movement, and Teens Kickin’ Nicotine, a Schuylkill County group that tar­gets tobacco companies. Hussain’s well-craft­ed and timely “Minersville v. Gobitis” is the senior division 2003 winner of the Pennsyl­vania Heritage award for best paper. The award was announced at Pennsylvania His­tory Day, held last May at the Pennsylvania State University, State College. Hussain’s careful research relied on primary sources from the U.S. Supreme Court, academic jour­nals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and original news­paper accounts.