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West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette

319 U.S. 624 (1943)


Facts of the Case:

As part of instituting a required curriculum teaching American values, the state of West Virginia forced students and teachers to participate in saluting the flag. Failure to comply with this resulted in expulsion and the student was considered illegally absent until readmitted. A group of Jehovah's Witnesses refused to salute the flag because it represented a graven image that was not to be recognized.



Decision:

In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that the school district violated the rights of students by forcing them to salute the American flag.


Majority Opinion: (Justice Jackson)

The refusal of the students to say the pledge did not infringe on the rights of other students. The flag salute required students to declare a belief that was contrary to their faiths. The state did not claim that a clear and present danger would be created if the students remained passive during the pledge. Unlike the decision in Gobitis, this Court does not believe that allowing an individual's rights to be supported over government authority is a sign of a weak government. "Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for religious toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law not aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious beliefs. The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities." Finally, compulsion is not a legitimate means for creating national unity.



Significance:

This decision directly reversed the Court's earlier decision in Gobitis. In this case, the Court saw the forced salute as compelling the students to assert a belief contrary to their faiths. The minimal harm created by lack of compliance is not great enough to dismiss the rights of the students to exercise their religions



  

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