Lillian Gobitas

A few years ago, on a tour of the Library of Congress, I got to hold in my hands two things: George Washington’s famous letter To the Hebrew Synagogues of Newport, in which he proclaims that “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and an awkwardly written letter, on lined notebook paper, from one Billy Gobitas, age 10, explaining to his “school directors” why, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he could not salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.  Unfortunately for Billy and his 12-year-old sister Lillian, the principal had not read Washington’s letter.  The children were quickly expelled.

Five years later, the Supreme Court ruled against the children, in favor of the school board. The reaction across the country was dramatic, with mobs of people burning down Kingdom Halls, and subjecting Witnesses to everything from tarring and feathering to lynching and castration.  Eleanor Roosevelt herself defended the Witnesses, but to little effect.  In 1943, in a case called Barnette, with almost identical facts, a very different Supreme Court upheld the right not to salute the flag or recite the Pledge as a basic example of freedom of expression. Justice Jackson wrote: “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.”  George Washington would have been proud.

Lillian Gobitas died on September 12.  We owe her a lot.


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