Thank You, Mrs. Klose

Thank you for standing up for your right, and that of other Americans, not to be coerced: 

Lillian Gobitis Klose, who as a school-age member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the U.S. flag with her classmates, a controversial act of conscience that set off a legal tug of war in the 1930s and ’40s that ultimately bolstered the First Amendment right to religious expression, died Aug. 22 in Fayetteville, Ga. She was 90.

School officials in Minersville, Pa., where her parents ran a grocery store, expelled the young Ms. Gobitis for this act of defiance. But convinced that her Jehovah’s Witness faith forbade a public display of allegiance to a national symbol, she took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 – and lost, 8-1, with Justice Felix Frankfurter writing, sententiously, that “National unity is the basis of national security.”

Hers wasn’t a comfortable stand to take, especially with war looming, as the Washington Post’s obituary notes:

“It was a very scary time,” Mrs. Klose told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On one occasion, the Gobitis family was in a car when a mob attempted to flip it over. Another time, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer, the police chief parked his car outside her family’s grocery store to protect it from a threatened attack.

Especially with homeschooling rights virtually unrecognized at the time, Jehovah’s Witness youngsters were at risk of being sent to state reformatories, and their parents were at risk of prosecution for contributing to delinquency.  But by yielding no ground, Lillian Gobitis prepared the way for a victory just three years later, when in a case with similar facts, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the high court reversed itself and in a 6-3 ruling upheld the right not to salute the flag or say the pledge. Justice Robert Jackson’s ringing pronouncement was to enter the constitutional canon: “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.”  

It always did seem a bit hopeful for Jackson to pronounce that principle a “fixed star”; after all, the Court was reversing a contrary ruling from just three years previous. But the phrase was more accurate as prediction: the principle was to become a fixed star in constitutional jurisprudence, to the immense benefit of Americans and our liberty. Even in an era in which, ominously, some elected officials seek to roll back other First Amendment protections, there is little if any movement to reverse the flag and pledge decisions.

Well done, Lillian Gobitis Klose.