With March marking Women’s History Month, we are recognizing the important role that women have played in fighting for the separation of church and state and religious freedom -- an impact that’s often been overlooked despite our nation's history of discriminating against women on the basis of religion. The way that we document history, the sources we save, and the voices we privilege make it seem as though there are not many women who have played prominent roles in the fight for religious freedom in the United States. Of course, this is not the case. Women were integral in the fight for church-state separation, and, thankfully, we have evidence about the contributions of many of them.
One of the women we’d like to recognize, especially since it’s Public Schools Week, is Lillian Gobitas, who, in 1935 at the tender age of 12, took a stand against mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in her public school and in the course made history.
Gobitas was a Jehovah’s Witness who belonged to a family who argued, in line with Witness beliefs, that their allegiance was to God, not the flag. She was attending an elementary school in Minersville, Pa., when she and her brother, William, decided they would no longer participate in the mandatory salute to the Pledge of Allegiance for religious freedom purposes. As a result, they were expelled from the school.
“They expelled us right then and there,” Gobitas told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003. “They said, ‘Don’t come back.’”
She was quoted in the book The Courage of Their Convictions by Peter Irons saying that she “loved school” and that she “was actually kind of popular. And I felt that, ‘Oh, if I stop saluting the flag, I will blow all this!’ And I did.”
Their unpopular stand costs the family a lot personally, but they didn’t abandon it. They took the issue to court. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1940 ruled 8-1 against the Gobitas family in Minersville School District v. Gobitis. (The court misspelled their name.)
This ruling led to hate crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many Witness students were expelled from schools nationwide, and the Gobitas family were ostracized in their local community.
“It got real ugly,” Gobitas told The Morning Call, a newspaper published in Allentown, Pa., in 1988. “They thought we were Communists, Nazis. They felt real righteous about it.”
There were some changes on the Supreme Court after the ruling, and some of the justices seemed to realize that the court might have made a mistake. Just a few years later, the high court accepted an identical case from West Virginia. In 1943’s West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the justices ruled 6-3 in favor of public school students’ rights of conscience. Public schools were no longer allowed to coerce its students to participate in the mandatory flag salutes and recitation of the Pledge, and this is in part to Gobitas’ brave stand.
“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 Robert Jackson famously noted in the Barnette decision.
It’s worth noting that when Gobitas challenged compulsory recitation of the Pledge, the words “under God” were not part of it. Congress added those words in 1954. Today, some students who are non-believers or skeptics refuse to say the Pledge in public schools due to its religious content. Although they’re sometimes harassed for taking this stand, the law is on their side – thanks in part to Lillian Gobitas. Her stand helped launch a wave of court battles that helped shape the inclusive public schools we have today.
The separation of church and state protects the religious freedom and rights of all public school students. Find out what your rights are and what to do if your rights are being violated.
This Public Schools Week, we at AU are affirming our commitment to ensuring that public schools are equipped to teach children all they need to know about core subjects like reading, math and science while protecting families’ rights to make their own decisions about faith.