Gobitis and Barnett: The Flag Salute and the Changing Interpretation of the Constitution


  • Rhenee Clark Swink Wichita State University


American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, constitutional rights, freedom of religion, free speech, Pledge of Allegiance, saluting American flag


In Minersville School District vs Gobitis (1940) the United States Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 overturning lower court decisions barring states from implementing compulsory flag salutes. Three years later, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling with a 6 to 3 decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). The cases were nearly identical and argued similarly but had different outcomes. How did the landscape of America change so drastically in a three-year period? First, the Supreme Court did not see a danger in the rise of nationalism in the United States or the social impact the ruling would bring. Second, the violence that followed Gobitis decision caused Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pacifist group that was uninvolved in politics, to become more persistent in utilizing the legal system and more vocal concerning persecution of its members. Finally, the Supreme Court was not the same. A change in justices and a shift in the focus of the Court from economic matters to personal liberties created a different political landscape, when West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnett reached the Court in 1943.