West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
The U.S. Supreme Court oftentimes makes more than one decision on an issue, tweaking and sometimes completely overturning its previous position. Such was the case with the issue of saluting the flag during the National Anthem in public schools. The Court spent years on decisions attempting to find the right balance between school policy and students’ rights – without dictating what’s right and wrong.
In 1943 the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which overturned the previous precedent set by the 1940 case Minersville School District v. Gobitis, said that students could invoke their First Amendment right to free speech in order to be excused from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public school.
The Barnette siblings were Jehovah’s Witnesses attending public school in West Virginia at a time when the Pledge of Allegiance was mandatory as a result of the Minersville decision a few years before.
In the Minersville decision the court held that children in public school could be forced to salute the flag. The Gobitis children involved were expelled from school without an opportunity to appeal the decision. In West Virginia an entire curriculum was structured around patriotism and reverence for the flag. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, neither Barnette nor Gobitis were allowed to salute the flag as their religion considers it similar to a substitution for their supreme being, or a type of worship that is not allowed.
The difference between Minersville and Barnette was that the court decided that saluting the flag was akin to an “utterance” and thus protected by the First Amendment.
Part of the court’s change of heart was related to changes in justices, as several had been replaced in the three years between the two decisions.