The refusal of West Virginia school children to participate in compulsory flag-salute ceremonies resulted in the expansion of the constitutional protection for religious liberties for all Americans in the landmark 1943 case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. Jehovah’s Witnesses Walter Barnette, Lucy McClure, and Paul Stull sued when their children were expelled from the Kanawha County schools for their refusal to salute the flag. They claimed that requiring participation in the ceremony violated First Amendment freedom of speech and religion. Two years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had held, in an 8-1 decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, that such requirements did not violate the Constitution.
America’s involvement in World War II made refusal to salute the flag especially unpopular, but Jehovah’s Witnesses continued steadfast. Flag-salute confrontations between the sect and school officials occurred throughout America. In 1942, quoting extensively from the Gobitis decision, the West Virginia State Board of Education adopted flag-salute regulations. The Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged the regulations and won at trial. The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in the 6-3 Barnette decision struck down the laws of all states requiring schoolchildren to salute the flag.
Justice Robert Jackson wrote the Court’s opinion. ‘‘The very purpose of a Bill of Rights,’’ he contended, ‘‘was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials.’’
This Article was written by Chuck Smith
Last Revised on December 17, 2010
Manwaring, David R. Render Unto Caesar: The Flag Salute Controversy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Cite This Article
Smith, Chuck "The Barnette Case." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 17 December 2010. Web. 23 January 2017.