Lillian Gobitas Klose, Who Challenged Flag Salute in Schools, Dies at 90

By Mark Walsh — September 08, 2014 2 min read
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Lillian Gobitas Klose, whose refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance as a Pennsylvania schoolchild in the 1930s led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the requirement that was later overruled, has died at age 90.

Mrs. Klose died at her home in Fayetteville, Ga., on Aug. 22, The New York Times reported in Sunday’s editions.

Lillian Gobitas and her brother, William, were expelled from the Minersville, Pa., school district in 1935 for their refusal to say the Pledge. Their family belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had chosen to challenge such mandatory classroom observances.

The children’s father, Walter Gobitas, explained to the Minersville school board that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not believe in bowing to any “graven images” portraying false gods, which included the flags of nations, according to Peter Irons in his account in The Courage of Their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Fought Their Way to the Supreme Court.

In a first-person account in the book, Lillian said her brother had come home from 5th grade one day and announced that he had refused to stand for the Pledge. The next day, Lillian, then 12, took her stand.

“This wasn’t something my parents forced on us,” she said in the account. Her teacher was supportive, but the students in her class “were just awful,” she said. “I sat down and the whole room was aghast. After that, when I’d come to school, they would throw a hail of pebbles and yell things like, ‘Here comes Jehovah!’”

The family sued the school district and won in both a federal district court and a federal appeals court. Somewhere along the way, Irons writes, a court clerk misspelled the family name as Gobitis, and that is the spelling associated with their case, including the Supreme Court decision.

In Minersville School District v. Gobitis in 1940, Justice Felix W. Frankfurter wrote for an 8-1 court that religious belief “does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities.”

“A society which is dedicated to the preservation of these ultimate values of civilization may in self-protection utilize the educational process for inculcating those almost unconscious feelings which bind men together in a comprehending loyalty, whatever may be their lesser differences and difficulties,” Frankfurter wrote.

The opinion unleashed a wave of attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses across the country. In 1943, with new two justices, Wiley Rutledge and Robert Jackson, the court agreed to hear a similar case from West Virginia.

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the court ruled 6-3 to overrule Gobitis and strike down a state law requiring students to recite the Pledge.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” Justice Jackson wrote for the majority. “If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

Lillian wrote in her first-person account that she and her family attended the Barnette arguments in the Supreme Court. At the time the book was published, in 1988, she said, “It has been more than 50 years since I took a stand on the flag salute, but I would do it again in a second. Without reservation!”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.