Remembering the Brave Young Woman Who Refused to Say the Pledge of Allegiance Nearly 80 Years Ago

Usually, when I mention Jehovah’s Witnesses on this site, it’s not for a good reason. But we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

In 1935, fifth-grader William Gobitas refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because treating the flag like an idol went against his family’s JW faith. His 12-year-old sister Lillian did the same thing the next day.

William (left) and Lillian (right) with father Walter Gobitas (via Jehovah’s Witnesses)

They were both expelled from the Minersville School District in Pennsylvania quickly after that. Their parents were forced to pay for a private school, and that was the beginning of a lawsuit that went all the way up to the Supreme Court.

In 1940, in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the Court ruled 8-1… in favor of the school district. Seriously. They said it wasn’t a violation of religious freedom to compel students to say the Pledge. It was such an awful decision, the Court (with a different makeup) reversed itself three years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

In the interim, things were really horrible for JWs:

The high court’s [1940] ruling had a dramatic impact. A Jehovah’s Witnesses church in Maine was burned. Members of the sect were threatened and bullied. Their children were expelled from public schools around the country.

“It was open season on Jehovah’s Witnesses,” [Lillian Gobitas] Klose said. “All over the country, there were mobs… This went on for three years.”

Yet the siblings stood strong throughout all of that. It was the same sort of courage we saw decades later with a young Ellery Schempp refusing to take part in mandatory Bible readings at his public school.

For 12-year-old Lillian, the sting from her act of conscience — which she said was entirely the result of her own thinking, not her parents’ — was sharp. Children threw rocks at her, The Washington Post reported in 1988.

She overheard two girls talking. “We used to be friends with her,” one said. People jeered the family on the streets. William was beaten by schoolmates. Local churches led a boycott of the family’s grocery store.

The 1943 case (reversing the original ruling) was one of the first times the First Amendment was invoked to protect the rights of minority beliefs. It’s perhaps the sharpest tool in the atheist arsenal and we have Jehovah’s Witnesses to thank for it.

I bring this all up because Lillian Klose died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 90. The New York Times published a lovely obituary in yesterday’s paper.

It’s worth reflecting on her incredible courage and everything she went through because of her convictions. We all want to believe we would’ve done the same thing in her situation… but that’s so much easier said than done. Klose may not have won her legal case, but she tipped one of the initial dominoes for a line of defense we still use today. That’a legacy that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.


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