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JUNE 14, 2018

A Stand of Courage and Conscience Established Supreme Court Precedent 75 Years Ago

A Stand of Courage and Conscience Established Supreme Court Precedent 75 Years Ago

Nine-year-old Gathie Barnett and her eight-year-old sister, Marie, stood respectfully and silently while their classmates saluted the American flag. They had no idea that their act of faith would place them at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case in 1943. The Barnett girls simply believed that they should pledge their loyalty to God alone. They are among the thousands of children of Jehovah’s Witnesses who have followed their Christian conscience.—Acts 5:29.

For their courageous stand, Gathie and Marie were expelled from Slip Hill Grade School in West Virginia. Their father fought the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled on June 14, 1943, that schools cannot force children to salute the flag, making special note that Jehovah’s Witnesses intend no “disrespect for either the flag or the country.” West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette struck down the Court’s ruling in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, which just three years earlier had given schools the right to require students to salute. a

Justice Robert Jackson, in writing the 6-3 majority opinion for the Supreme Court, eloquently declared: “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.”

Although Witness children were the immediate beneficiaries of the ruling, Andrew Koppelman, professor of law at Northwestern University, states: “American civil libertarians owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who endured vicious and cruel persecution in America in their fight for civil liberties that we all continue to enjoy.”

Beyond its impact on United States jurisprudence, Philip Brumley, general counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, explains: “The power of Barnette can be seen by the fact that the Supreme Courts of Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Ghana, India, the Philippines, and Rwanda, along with the European Court of Human Rights, have all favorably quoted and followed its reasoning.”

In 2006, Gathie and Marie were invited to discuss the significance of their case along with a distinguished panel of scholars at the Robert H. Jackson Center in New York. Marie stated: “I am especially happy that it helped the kids after us.” Gathie added: “I remember when my older son was sent to the office for not saluting the flag. The principal came back and said, ‘Your teacher obviously doesn’t remember the Supreme Court decision.’”

Echoing the sentiments of all Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gathie noted: “We respect the flag and what it stands for. We don’t have anything against that. We just don’t believe in worshipping or saluting it.”—1 John 5:21.

a Court clerks misspelled the surnames of both the Gobitas and Barnett children.