Freedom Fighter: Remembering Lillian Gobitas, Defender Of The Right Of Conscience

Suddenly it was open season on Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I was perusing the Sunday New York Times yesterday when a name on the obituary page jumped out at me: Lillian Gobitas.

Gobitas died Aug. 22 at age 90. The name may not mean much to you unless you’re a student of church-state history, but we all owe her a debt.

In 1935, Lillian Gobitas was 12 years old and was attending an elementary school in Minersville, Pa. She and her family belonged to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and Lillian and her brother, William, had decided they would no longer participate in the mandatory Pledge of Allegiance. They were expelled that day.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that flag salutes are a form of idolatry. Their only allegiance, they argue, is to God. Citing religious freedom and the right of conscience, the children refused to take part.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Remarkably, in 1940 the high court ruled 8-1 against the Gobitas family in Minersville School District v. Gobitis. (A printer’s error resulted in the family’s name being misspelled as “Gobitis” on the legal documents; it was never corrected.) Public school students, the justices said, could be compelled the recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a way of fostering “national cohesion.”

The fallout from that ruling was grim. Suddenly it was open season on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Witness children were expelled from schools around the country. In Litchfield, Ill., a mob attacked some Witnesses who were distributing religious literature. In Richwood, W.Va., the chief of police led a crowd of hooligans as they rounded up Witnesses, forced them to drink castor oil and paraded them out of town.

In Jackson, Miss., a crowd attacked a trailer park where many Witnesses lived and drove them out. In Kennebunkport, Maine, a frenzied mob burned down the local Kingdom Hall. In Nebraska, a Witness man was lured from his home, dragged away and castrated.

Just two weeks after the Gobitis ruling, the U.S. Department of Justice had recorded hundreds of attacks on Witnesses nationwide.

Perhaps shaken by all of this, the Supreme Court in 1942 accepted an identical flag-salute case, this one from West Virginia. There had been a few changes on the court since 1940, and this time the court got it right. Ruling 6-3 in 1943’s West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the justices declared that public schools may not violate students’ rights of conscience by requiring flag salutes and recitation of the Pledge.

The decision is notable for this eloquent passage by Justice Robert Jackson: “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, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

When Gobitis and Barnette were argued, the words “under God” did not appear in the Pledge of Allegiance. They were added by an act of Congress in 1954 as slap at “Godless communism” in the Soviet Union. These days, most disputes over the Pledge involve atheist students who don’t want to say it due to its religious content.

Americans United deals with a few of these cases every year. We don’t get a flood of them, but every September we can count on a few trickling in. Some public school teacher or administrator somewhere doesn’t understand the law and tries to compel an atheist, humanist, agnostic or even a religious student who doesn’t want to recite the Pledge to say it.

Thankfully, these matters are easy to clear up. All AU has to do is write to the school, cite the Barnette case and wait for school officials to apologize to the student whose rights they have violated.

It’s a simple fix – and for it we can thank a gutsy young woman named Lillian Gobitas.