Landmark Supreme Court Case: Minersville School District v. Gobitis
Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) is the 78th landmark Supreme Court cases, the fourth in the Education module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)
Mandatory flag pledges in public schools were motivated by patriotic fervor in wartime America. The first known mandatory flag pledges were instituted in a number of states during the Spanish–American War. During World War I, many more states instituted mandatory flag pledges with only a few dissents recorded by the American Civil Liberties Union.
On Monday, June 3, 1935, Watch Tower Society president J. F. Rutherford, was interviewed at a Witness convention about “the flag salute by children in school”. He told the convention audience that to salute an earthly emblem, ascribing salvation to it, was unfaithfulness to God. Rutherford said that he would not do it. While the matter was not yet established doctrine or written policy of Jehovah’s Witnesses, at least some Witness families quickly made a personal conscientious decision on the matter.
In September in Lynn, Massachusetts, a third-grader and Jehovah’s Witness named Carleton Nichols refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and was expelled from school. The Nichols incident received widespread media attention, and other Witness students soon followed suit. Rutherford gave a radio address praising Nichols, and schools around the country began expelling Witness students and firing Witness teachers.
Jehovah’s Witnesses published the booklet Loyalty, making the matter an official doctrine of the faith before the end of 1935. Witnesses hired teachers and set up “Kingdom schools” to continue their children’s education. The national leadership subsequently decided to make an issue of the forced pledges and asked people to stand up for their right to religious freedom.
Walter Gobitas was a recent convert to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Gobitas was inspired by stories of other Jehovah’s Witnesses who challenged the system and suffered for it, and decided to make a stand himself and instructed his children not to pledge allegiance when at school. In 1935, Lillian and William Gobitis were expelled from Pennsylvania public schools for refusing to salute the flag as part of a daily school exercise.
Minersville, Pennsylvania was predominantly Roman Catholic and there was significant animosity towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Tensions were already high before this case arose and many viewed this as one way to get back at the Witnesses.
As a result, the Gobitis children were subjected to teasing, taunting, and attacks from the other kids. For Lillian, this meant giving up her status as class president and losing most of her friends.
“When I’d come to school,” she said, “they would throw a hail of pebbles and yell things like, ‘Here comes Jehovah!’ Billy’s fifth-grade teacher attempted to physically force his arm out of his pocket to make the requisite salute.
At first, the school board was in a quandary because the law did not provide penalties for those who refused to pledge. Finally, though, the school board got permission to punish the Gobitas children and expelled them, without appeal.
A local Catholic church started a boycott of the family store and its business dropped off. Because of their eventual expulsion, their father had to pay for them to enroll in a private school, resulting in even more economic hardship.
The trial court found that the board’s requirement that the children salute the flag was an unconstitutional violation of their free exercise of religious beliefs. The three-judge Third Circuit Court unanimously affirmed the district court decision. The school board decided to take its case to the Supreme Court, authorizing its attorney to file a petition for a writ of certiorari, which the Court granted on 4 March 1940.
A: No. The Court upheld mandatory flag salute against First and Fourteenth Amendment challenge
8-1 holding the First Amendment does not require States to excuse public school students from saluting the American flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on religious grounds. Public schools could compel students—in this case, Jehovah’s Witnesses—to salute the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance despite the students’ religious objections to these practices. Third Circuit reversed.
Relying on the “secular regulation” rule, which weighs the secular purpose of a nonreligious government regulation against the religious practice it makes illegal or otherwise burdens, the Court held that the state’s interest in “national cohesion” was “inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values,” and that national unity was “the basis of national security.” The school district’s interest in creating national unity was enough to allow them to require students to salute the flag as the Court declined to make itself “the school board for the country.”
The decision led to increased persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States as on June 9, a mob of 2,500 burned the Kingdom Hall in Kennebunkport, Maine. On June 16, Litchfield, Illinois police jailed all of that town’s sixty Witnesses, ostensibly protecting them from their neighbors. On June 18, townspeople in Rawlins, Wyoming brutally beat five Witnesses; on June 22, the people of Parco, Wyoming tarred and feathered another.
The American Civil Liberties Union reported to the Justice Department that nearly 1,500 Witnesses were physically attacked in more than 300 communities nationwide. One Southern sheriff told a reporter why Witnesses were being run out of town: “They’re traitors; the Supreme Court says so. Ain’t you heard?”
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appealed publicly for calm, while newspaper editorials and the American legal community condemned the Gobitis decision as a blow to liberty. On June 8, 1942, Supreme Court Justices Black, Douglas and Murphy stated in their opinion on Jones v. City of Opelika that, although they had concurred with the majority in the Gobitis case, they now believed that that case had been wrongly decided The Supreme Court overruled Gobitis three years later, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
Next Education Case: West Virginia v. Barnette (1943)
Previous Education Case: Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)
Next Case: U.S. v. Darby (1941)
Previous Case: Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)