Aug 30, 2014

Minersville girl made legal history

Peter E. BortnerAugust 30, 2014Republican & Herald

In 1935, Lillian Gobitas refused to salute the U.S. flag in her classroom in Minersville.

By doing so, the Jehovah's Witness got herself expelled from school, made her and her family the targets of community hostility and started a trail that ultimately changed American legal history.
Lillian Gobitas Klose, who died Aug. 22 at age 90 at her home in Fayetteville, Georgia, did not set out to make history, but she did so by acting in accordance with her lifelong faith.
The path she chose created controversy from the outset.

Officials from the Minersville School District — it did not become Minersville Area until more than two decades later — expelled her and her brother, William, for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, forcing them to go to private school. Their father, Walter, who operated a store in town, sued the district to compel it to readmit his children.

He won in U.S. District Court and then before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
However, the district appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1940, in an 8-1 decision written by Justice Felix Frankfurter, the nation's highest court overturned the lower court rulings, sided with the district and upheld Lillian's and William's expulsions. Justice Harlan Fiske Stone dissented.
What occurred next completely surprised many people across the country.

Jehovah's Witnesses became targets of violence across the country. At least one Kingdom Hall, the name the denomination gives to all of its churches, was burned, and many of the church's members were imprisoned or assaulted.

The violence shocked many Americans and resulted in a reversal that was virtually unprecedented in the history of the Supreme Court.

Only three years after it had ruled against the Gobitas family, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 to overturn that decision in a case involving a family of Jehovah's Witnesses from West Virginia.
After the Gobitas decision, West Virginia had enacted a law requiring that courses in civics be taught in its schools. State education regulators made the Pledge of Allegiance a required part of such courses.

The Barnette family challenged that regulation, and the Supreme Court agreed it violated the children's free speech rights.

Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote that the state could not make people recite the Pledge of Allegiance and that one of the purposes of the Bill of Rights was to put certain liberties beyond the reach of even democratically elected legislatures.

The decision marked a milestone in the history of the Supreme Court, which proceeded to take a wider role in upholding constitutional liberties, especially ones protected by the First Amendment.
Jackson's decision also vindicated Lillian Gobitas, who never wavered in her faith, even though it had cost her the class presidency and subjected her to ridicule from other students.

Regardless of what one might think of Jehovah's Witnesses, Lillian Gobitas is an example of a person whose willingness to fight for her beliefs has expanded everyone's personal freedoms.
(Bortner, a staff writer, is a 1982 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.)