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Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Supreme Court

A historic black-and-white image of nine U.S. Supreme Court judges in their black robes
The nine U.S. Supreme Court justices who ruled on the 1943 flag-salute case


Major U.S. Supreme Court Cases Involving Jehovah’s Witnesses

Lovell v. Griffin (1938)
Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)
Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)
Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)
Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1943)
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
Estep v. United States (1946)
Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York v. Village of Stratton (2002)

A historic black-and-white image of people marching down a store-lined street, holding signs reading “Serve God & Christ The King”
Jehovah's Witnesses on an "Information March"

A historic newspaper headline reading “Justice Department Probing Rockville Riot Against Sect: Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Meeting Hall Wrecked After Refusal to Salute Flag”
The Evening Star, Washington D.C., c. 1940

Before the Jehovah’s Witnesses brought several dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1930s and 1940s, the Court had handled few cases contesting laws that restricted free speech and religion. Until then, the First Amendment had only been applied to Congress and the federal government. But the Witnesses forced the Court to consider a range of issues: mandatory flag salute, sedition, free speech, literature distribution and draft law. These cases proved to be pivotal moments in the formation of constitutional law. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ court victories have strengthened rights including the protection of religious conduct from federal and state interference, the right to abstain from patriotic rituals and military service and the right to engage in public discourse.

Landmark Cases

In 1935 in Lynn, Massachusetts, third-grader and Jehovah’s Witness Carleton Nichols refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and was expelled from school. This incident received widespread media attention, and other Witness students soon followed suit. Watchtower Society President J.F. Rutherford gave a radio address praising Nichols, and schools around the country began expelling Witness students and firing Witness teachers. Witnesses hired teachers and set up “Kingdom schools” to continue their children’s education.

A school board in Minersville, Pennsylvania expelled 12-year-old Lillian Gobitas and her 10-year-old brother Billy for not pledging allegiance in the fall of 1935. Two years later, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the expulsion had violated their rights. In 1939 an appeals court agreed, and the school board took the case to the Supreme Court. Violence against Witnesses gained momentum as tension mounted over the German invasion of Poland, launching World War II.

In June 1940, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Minersville could require the Gobitas children to salute the flag, triggering what Lillian Gobitas later called “open season on Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Angry mobs assaulted Witnesses, destroyed their property, boycotted their businesses and vandalized their houses of worship. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appealed publicly for calm, while newspaper editorials and the American legal community condemned the Gobitas decision as a blow to liberty. Several justices signaled their belief that the case had been “wrongly decided.”

West Virginia v. Barnette finally reversed the decision of Minersville School District v. Gobitis (a court clerk misspelled Gobitas) in 1943. Argued by Witness attorney Hayden C. Covington, the case revisited the issue of mandatory flag salute. Justice Robert Jackson penned the majority opinion stating, in part, that, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

Learn about Jehovah's Witnesses' roles and resistance during the Holocaust >>

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