“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 . . . ”
With that, an eight to one U. S. Supreme Court decision made just three years earlier was overturned. Eight to one is a lot. A squeaker of a decision—maybe that could conceivably be overturned. But eight to one?
Of course—you know how our people are—we right away gave credit to God, since the case involved us. “We knew the Lord would arrange it. The victory is his,” said Gobitis. They did exactly the same when the European Court of Human rights ruled the 2017 ban on the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses was illegal. But Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, who worked hard to engineer the turnaround, said that all’s well that ends well, “but I should like to have seen the case end well in the first place . . .”
Gobitis is Walter Gobitis, a store owner and Jehovah’s Witness whose children were expelled from school for refusal to salute the flag. Standing respectfully while others salute was not enough for school district officials. Their expulsion was stayed on appeal, stayed once again on higher appeal, but then upheld when school district officials lodged a final appeal with the Supreme Court. We are not the “school board of the country,” the Court said. Let them do what they want. The decision is known as Minersville School District vs Gobitas. (1940–yes, they misspelled his name)
Clearly understood by everyone involved was that the stand of Jehovah’s Witnesses was religious and had nothing to do with patriotism or lack thereof. Gobitis said of his children after the 1943 turnaround (West Virginia vs Barnette): “America is their country. But God must come first.”
If that point was clearly understood by everyone involved, it was not understood by the general public not involved. “They’re traitors—the Supreme Court says so,” was a typical sentiment expressed by a sheriff in the Deep South. (pg 84)
Witnesses saw (and see) flag salute as a violation of the second of the Ten Commandments: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be enticed to serve them, for I, Jehovah your God, am a God who requires exclusive devotion . . . (Exodus 20:4-5)
Anything in the heavens, on earth, or in the sea covers a lot of ground. Bowing down is not so different than saluting such an anything. The Witnesses even garnered some support by the circumstance that, at the time, the flag salute looked exactly like the Heil Hitler Nazi salute with outstretched arm—the hand-over-heart pledge of allegiance was a later development. And since God requires exclusive devotion, and the Bible verse next considers punishment for those not serving him that way—suddenly things that at first glance do not seem very similar become so. One should bully small children into doing something that their Bible-trained conscience tells them is disagreeable to God and may merit punishment?
It is why even the lofty ones who did not like Jehovah’s Witnesses thought Minersville was a terrible decision. The New Republic likened the Supreme Court to German tribunals that similarly punished the Witnesses for refusing to perform the Nazi salute. Wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “We think this decision of the United States Supreme Court is dead wrong. We think its decision is a violation of American principle. We think it is a surrender to popular hysteria. If patriotism depends upon such things as this—upon violation of a fundamental right of religious freedom—then if becomes not a noble emotion of love for country, but something to be rammed down our throats by the law.” When the decision was reversed three years later, Time Magazine led off its coverage with, “Blot Removed.”
The prevailing opinion in Minersville (‘We live by symbols’) was, in most legal and journalistic circles, thought an embarrassment. The dissenting opinion of Minersville, written by Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, who later became Chief Justice Stone, was the one most championed in those circles. Three years later that dissenting opinion would become the prevailing one.
(All quotations, except from those of links, are taken from the book Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses, by Shawn Francis Peters)
To be continued: here
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