Minersville School District v. Gobitis

At issue in Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) was the constitutionality of a mandatory flag salute ceremony in school. A local board of education required that both students and teachers participate in a daily flag salute ceremony that included the Pledge of Allegiance and extended hand to salute the American flag. Two children who were Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the national flag based on their religious beliefs and were expelled. Insofar as Pennsylvania law made school attendance compulsory, the parents placed their children in a private school. The father then filed suit on behalf of his children and himself challenging the flag salute on the ground that it infringed on their religious beliefs in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. After a federal trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and the Third Circuit affirmed, the school board and various officials appealed.

On further review, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in favor of the defendants. In reviewing the case, the Court identified the issue as whether the requirement of participating in the ceremony by children, who refused to do so because of their religious convictions, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Insofar as the Court viewed the school board’s action as that of the legislature, the justices analyzed the legislature’s constitutional authority to mandate the flag salute ceremony. The Court was of the opinion that individual liberties are not absolute and that the flag salute ceremony promoted national unity, which was the basis for national security. To this end, the Court determined that the legislature had the right to select appropriate means to accomplish this goal.

The Supreme Court thus found that the mandatory flag salute ceremony, with expulsion as the penalty for students who refused to participate, did not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Explaining that the ceremony was a reasonable exercise of legislative power, the Court urged judicial restraint in matters of education policy, which the justices thought was outside of the purview of their consideration. Insofar as it did not want to become the school board for the country, the Court pointed out, other remedial processes remained open to individuals who wished to change the policy and the law.

As the Supreme Court noted in its analysis, Gobitis represented an issue of reconciling conflicting claims about liberty and authority. Yet, the holding in Gobitis was short lived, because three years later, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the Court reconsidered its opinion and reached a different result. In Barnette, the Court decided that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited the government from compelling the flag salute and the Pledge of Allegiance. In so ruling, the Court clearly rejected the due process reasonableness test of Gobitis and viewed the Free Speech Clause, applicable by the Fourteenth Amendment, as a direct limitation on legislative action.

Deborah Curry

See also Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow; Fourteenth Amendment

Legal Citations

  • Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1 (2004). 
  • Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940). 
  • Newdow v. U.S. Congress, 328 F.3d 466 (9th Cir.) (2002). 
  • West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).