Before he says anything else about the Pledge of Allegiance, @RealDonaldTrump should read this . . .

Of course, we know he won’t — but that doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t brush up on the actual history of the Pledge, and the actual meaning of the flag. When we do, there can be no room for alternative facts — only a history that, based on how we define patriotism, either puts us on the side of some courageous young schoolchildren of a generation ago, or on the side of totalitarianism. . .


Billy Gobitas knew that refusing to salute the flag in his fifth-grade classroom could result in expulsion from school, loss of friends, and even persecution in his hometown of Minersville, Pennsylvania. But on October 22, 1935, he did it anyway. “I do not salute the flag,” he later wrote to the school board, “because I have promised to do the will of God.” The next day, twelve-year-old Lillian Gobitas followed her brother’s lead and also refused to salute the flag. “This wasn’t something my parents forced on us,” she later explained.  “I did a lot of reading and checking in the Bible and I really took my own stand.”

The Gobitas children were not alone. Other members of their church — Jehovah’s Witnesses — faced the same dilemma in school districts throughout the nation where saluting the flag was compulsory. As Billy explained in his letter, Witnesses believe that a flag salute is a form of idolatry, violating the biblical injunction not to “make unto thee any graven image, nor bow down to them.”

Two years earlier, in 1933, Adolf Hitler had banned the Witnesses in Nazi Germany for, among other things, refusing to give the Fascist salute in schools and at public events. Over the next decade, more than ten thousand Witnesses were imprisoned in concentration camps. These events in Nazi Germany led the leader of the American Witnesses, Joseph Rutherford, to denounce compulsory flag salutes in a speech delivered in 1935. Witnesses, he said, “do not ‘Heil Hitler’ nor any other creature.” Rutherford’s speech inspired the Gobitas family and other Witnesses to refuse to participate in the flag ceremony in the name of religious liberty.

The Witnesses’ objections to the flag salute failed to impress the members of the Minersville school board. In their view, the Pledge of Allegiance helped fulfill the public schools’ mission to instill “love of country.” They saw failure to salute the flag as insubordinate and unpatriotic. Most people in mostly Roman Catholic Minersville were equally unsympathetic with the unpopular Jehovah’s Witnesses. Consequently, Billy and Lillian Gobitas were expelled from school.

Eighteen months later, the children’s father, Walter Gobitas, filed suit. With the help of the Watch Tower Society of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the American Civil Liberties Union, Gobitas argued that the Minersville school board had deprived Billy and Lillian of their right to freedom of religion and speech under the First Amendment. The Gobitas family won in the federal district court in Philadelphia and won again in the U.S. Court of Appeals. Both courts dismissed the school board’s contention that refusal by schoolchildren to salute the flag on religious grounds was a danger to the nation. On the contrary, the judges said, Lillian and William Gobitas were exercising the very “liberty of conscience” that was sought by many of our ancestors when they first came to the New World.

The Minersville school board appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Minersville v. Gobitis was decided on June 3, 1940. (Due to a printer’s error, the Gobitas family name is misspelled in legal records.)  By an eight-to-one vote, the Court reversed the lower courts and ruled that the government had the authority to compel students to participate in the flag salute. Writing for the majority — and against the backdrop of an impending world war — Justice Felix Frankfurter pointed to the need for “a common feeling for the common country.” The flag, he argued, “is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences, however large, within the framework of the Constitution.” Justice Harlan Stone was the lone voice of dissent. The very essence of liberty, he wrote, “is the freedom of the individual from compulsion as to what he shall think and what he shall say, at least where the compulsion is to bear false witness to his religion.”

The Gobitis decision had an immediate and devastating impact on Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States. Within weeks of the Court’s ruling, hundreds of attacks on Witnesses were reported to the Department of Justice. Mobs, sometimes assisted by police, attacked and humiliated Witnesses across the nation. “In the two years following the Gobitis decision,” federal officials wrote, “the files of the Department of Justice reflect an uninterrupted record of violence and persecution of the Witnesses. Almost without exception, the flag and the flag salute can be found as the percussion cap that sets off these acts.”

Disturbed by the violence, three justices began to rethink their vote in Gobitis. When told by Justice William O. Douglas that Justice Hugo Black had changed his mind, Frankfurter asked, “Has Hugo been re-reading the Constitution during the summer?” Douglas replied, “No, he has been reading the papers.”

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear another flag-salute case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette — this time with three changed votes and two new justices. The case involved children of three Jehovah’s Witnesses in Charleston, West Virginia. Walter Barnette, Lucy McClure, and Paul Stull had been expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag.

This time, by a vote of six to three, the Court struck down the West Virginia flag-salute law, overruling the Gobitis decision. In one of the most eloquent and powerful decisions in Supreme Court history, Justice Robert Jackson cited examples from history of repressive government efforts to enforce national unity:

“The ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every such effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exiles as a means to Russian unity, down to the fast failing efforts of our present totalitarian enemies. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

The First Amendment, Jackson argued, was designed to avoid such tyranny by denying government the power over basic freedoms:

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

The American flag, Jackson reminded the nation, stands for freedom — including the freedom to dissent. And to deny people their inalienable rights is to deny the very meaning of the First Amendment:

“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. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

The U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Barnette on June 14, 1943 — Flag Day. Soon thereafter, attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses ceased.

Postscript: For an understanding of what today’s debate is really about, take 30 seconds to hear directly from San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid. This is what patriotism looks like — courageous, uncomfortable, informed, principled.

This is also who we are . . .

Categories: Democracy, First Amendment, Leadership, Learning

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