October 2014 Church & State | People & Events

Lillian Gobitas Klose, who as a youngster stood up for church-state separation in a key legal case during the 1930s, passed away in August at the age of 90.

In 1935, Gobitas was 12 years old and was attending an elementary school in Minersville, Pa. She and her family belonged to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, which holds that people should pledge allegiance only to God. Lillian and her brother, William, had decided they would no longer participate in the mandatory Pledge of Allegiance. They were expelled that day.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1940 the high court ruled 8-1 against the Gobitas family in Minersville School District v. Gobitis. (A printer’s error resulted in the family’s name being misspelled.) Public school students, the justices said, could be compelled the recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a way of fostering “national cohesion.”

The ruling sparked attacks on Witnesses nationwide. Witness children were expelled from schools around the country, and adult Witnesses were physically attacked and beaten. Just two weeks after the Gobitis ruling, the U.S. Department of Justice had re­corded hundreds of assaults on Witnesses nationwide. In one case from West Virginia, the local police chief led an unruly mob that forced Witnesses from their homes and out of town.

“It got real ugly,” Klose told the Al­len­­town (Pa.) Morning Call in 1988.“They thought we were Communists, Naz­is. They felt real righteous about it.”

The Supreme Court soon corrected its mistake. In 1942 the high court accepted an identical flag-salute case, and this time ruled the other way. Ruling 6-3 in 1943’s West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the justices declared that public schools may not violate students’ rights of conscience by requiring flag salutes and recitation of the Pledge.

Although Klose is largely forgotten today, AU Communications Director Rob Boston said in a “Wall of Separation” blog post that even now, whenever misguided teachers and school administrators try to punish students who won’t say the Pledge, they can’t because of legal precedent.

“It’s a simple fix – and for it we can thank a gutsy young woman named Lillian Gobitas,” he wrote.