Justice Robert Jackson
Justice Robert Jackson

In 1940, as most of Europe was at war with Nazi Germany and the United States was increasing production at its war industries in support of Great Britain, a wave of patrio­tism swept the country. During this time, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Minersville School District v. Gobitis that public school students were required to salute the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance regardless of personal religious beliefs. Despite the ruling, many students, includ­ing the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group in the United States, continued to resist saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance due to their religious beliefs. Many of these students were persecuted for their beliefs and intense pressure forced the Supreme Court to revisit the issue of First Amendment free­doms just three years later.

In 1943, the Court heard argu­ments in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. This case concerned a requirement by the West Virginia Board of Education that all teachers and students must salute the flag as part of their daily program. Refusal to do so resulted in harsh punishment, including, in some cases, expulsion. After review­ing arguments on both sides, the Court reversed its original ruling

in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, stating that this required activity violated the First Amendment. Justice Robert Jackson delivered the decision of the majority, writing that “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.” The Court’s ruling ensured that the right to worship freely, as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others, is protected under the Constitution.

 

Excerpts

…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….

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….