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Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the
Manuscript Division's First 100 Years
Letter, Billy Gobitas to Minersville, Pennsylvania, school directors, explaining why
the young Jehovah's Witness refused to salute the American flag, 5 November 1935.
(William Gobitas Papers)
"I do not salute the flag because I have promised to do the will of God," wrote ten-yearold Billy Gobitas (1925-1989) to the Minersville, Pennsylvania, school board in 1935.
His refusal, and that of his sister Lillian (age twelve), touched off one of several
constitutional legal cases delineating the tension between the state's authority to require
respect for national symbols and an individual's right to freedom of speech and religion.
The Gobitas children attended a public school which, as did most public schools at that
time, required all students to salute and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.
The Gobitas children were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, a church that in 1935
believed that the ceremonial saluting of a national flag was a form of idolatry, a violation
of the commandment in Exodus 20:4-6 that "thou shalt not make unto thee any graven
image, nor bow down to them. . . ." and forbidden as well by John 5:21 and Matthew
22:21. On 22 October 1935, Billy Gobitas acted on this belief and refused to participate
in the daily flag and pledge ceremony. The next day Lillian Gobitas did the same. In this
letter Billy Gobitas in his own hand explained his reasons to the school board, but on 6
November 1935, the directors of the Minersville School District voted to expel the two
children for insubordination.
The Watch Tower Society of the Jehovah's Witnesses sued on behalf of the children. The
decisions of both the United States district court and court of appeals was in favor of the
right of the children to refuse to salute. But in 1940 the United States Supreme Court by
an eight-to-one vote reversed these lower court decisions and ruled that the government
had the authority to compel respect for the flag as a key symbol of national unity.
Minersville v. Gobitis [a printer's error has enshrined a misspelling of the Gobitas name
in legal records] was not, however, the last legal word on the subject. In 1943 the
Supreme Court by a six-to-three vote in West Virginia State Board of Education v.
Barnette, another case involving the Jehovah's Witnesses, reconsidered its decision in
Gobitis and held that the right of free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment to the
Constitution denies the government the authority to compel the saluting of the American
flag or the recitation of the pledge of allegiance.
There had been strong public reaction against the Gobitis decision, which had been
written by Justice Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965). In the court term immediately following
the decision, Frankfurter noted in his scrapbook that Justice William O. Douglas (18981980) told him that Justice Hugo LaFayette Black (1886-1971) had changed his mind
about the Gobitis case. Frankfurter asked, "Has Hugo been re-reading the Constitution
during the summer?" Douglas replied, "No--he has been reading the papers."1 The
Library's William Gobitas Papers showcase the perspective of a litigant, whereas the
abstract legal considerations raised by Gobitis and other cases are represented in the
papers of numerous Supreme Court justices held by the Manuscript Division.
1. Quoted in H. N. Hirsch, The Enigma of Felix Frankfurter (New York: Basic Books,
1981), 152.
John E. Haynes and David Wigdor, Manuscript Division[email protected](mcc/016))