West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)

Barnette represents one of the truly remarkable reversals of course by the Supreme Court in its history. In 1940, the Court upheld a Pennsylvania statute requiring all public school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class every day. [Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 US 586] The statute had been challenged by Jehovah’s Witness parents and their children on grounds that their religious doctrine forbade such an act of swearing. In the aftermath of the Gobitis decision, Jehovah’s Witnesses were subjected to a torrent of national abuse, scorn and hatred. Nevertheless, in 1942, the Minersville Board of Education, acting as directed by a new West Virginia statute, promulgated a similar requirement to apply to both private and public schools to include salutes to the flag by teachers and students as a mandatory part of school activities. The children in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to perform the salute and were sent home from school for noncompliance. They were also threatened with reform schools, and their parents faced prosecutions for causing juvenile delinquency.

In a dramatic reversal of its three-year-old decision in Gobitis, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court held that compelling public schoolchildren to salute the flag was unconstitutional. The opinion written by Robert Jackson remains perhaps the most resounding declaration of principles of freedom of religion and speech since the writings of Madison and Jefferson. The Court found that under the First Amendment no government agency or court may enforce unanimity of opinion on any topic, and national symbols like the flag should not receive a level of deference that trumps constitutional protections. Jackson concluded his opinion for the Court stating that curtailing or eliminating dissent was an improper and ineffective way of generating unity, with these immortal words:

“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.”