About Religious Liberty: Chapter 3

worms eye view photography of statue of liberty

Free Exercise of Religion

Most Americans who are part of mainstream religious groups seldom worry about being able to worship according to their beliefs or being in conflict with accepted customs and laws. But those not part of the mainstream may live by convictions that are contrary to established ways of life or even the social and economic goals of a nation—and that often means conflict–today as well as in the past.

Since colonial times, some religious groups in North America have set themselves apart from the larger society. Some separated themselves because they believed in theocracy—rule by God through appointed prophets, priests, or other clergy. Diverse groups have been led by individuals who declared they were divinely directed by a supreme being. Some groups separate themselves to live as self-governing communities, maintaining their religious doctrines and practices.

The Anabaptists are examples of separatists living in self-governing communities. They are descendants of religious groups who left Protestant and Catholic churches, and set themselves apart from everything worldly, believing they should live much as Christians did in the first century. They included Mennonites, Brethren, and Hutterites,

Divisions occurred among the Anabaptists, however. Some members broke away to follow Jakob Ammann of Switzerland, from whom they took their name: Amish. Ammann believed in strict religious practices, among them wearing plain clothing and living a simple life based on farming or related occupations like carpentry.

The Amish maintained their humble life style when they came to North America and became known as “plain people.” They would not accept new technology as it developed, such as electricity and mechanized farm machinery. According to their beliefs, these worldly conveniences would prevent them from being close to nature, where in their view God’s presence is felt.

The Amish uphold a more rigid separation from modern society than other Anabaptist groups such as Mennonites and Brethren. Amish children attend school, usually church schools, only through eighth grade. Yet in most states, compulsory education laws require children to remain in school until the age of sixteen. In addition, state laws usually require that teachers in parochial schools obtain higher education—often a Master’s degree—to qualify for teaching positions. Many teachers in private Amish schools, however, have only an elementary education.

Amish schooling violates compulsory education laws, and during the 1950s and 1960s, several states with large Amish populations began to strictly enforce those laws, ordering Amish parents to send their children to public schools. For example, law enforcement officials in Buchanan County, Iowa, vowed to do everything in their power to force the Amish to obey the law. In 1965, state truant officers in Iowa burst into an Amish school, planning to commandeer the children into a school bus and take them to a public school. But their plan was uncovered by the press, and reporters were on the scene. After newspapers like the Des Moines Register carried the story, Americans across the nation criticized the Iowa school officials. Yet, no changes were made until 1967, when the Iowa legislature revised its laws to allow exemptions to compulsory education because of religious beliefs.

A similar situation occurred in Wisconsin during the 1970s. When an Amish family refused to comply with the education requirement, their landmark case Wisconsin v. Yoder reached the Supreme Court. In this instance, the Court ruled that the Wisconsin law would jeopardize the freedom of the Amish to live by their doctrines. The High Court also ruled that the type of informal vocational education (farming) that Amish children received was in line with the very interests that the state was attempting to accomplish with its school codes.

Amish families have not been alone in entanglement with local, state, or federal laws. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s school children were required by law in many states to begin class with a salute to the U.S. flag while pledging allegiance. That rankled members of religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few religious sects.

Walter Gobitas of Minnersville, Pennsylvania, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was one person in the past who publicly objected to the flag salute. In 1935 he advised his son, fifth-grader William (Billy) and his daughter, Lillian, a seventh grader, not to comply with the required flag ceremony at their public school. Like others of their faith, the flag salute was considered idol worship and against the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

Billy penned a letter to the Minnersville school board, explaining why he did not salute the flag, but the board was not convinced. Billy and Lillian were expelled from the school for not complying with the requirement. Their father then filed a lawsuit, which the Supreme Court eventually heard in 1940: Minersville School District v. Gobitis (Gobitas was misspelled in court documents). The decision was 8-1 in the school’s favor. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the majority that although religious dissent was protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, “The [U.S.] flag is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences, however large, within the framework of the Constitution.” If the Gobitas children did not salute the flag, their actions could have a negative impact on their classmates’ patriotism, according to the High Court.

“Suddenly it was open season on Jehovah’s Witnesses,” wrote Rob Boston of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.  “Children were expelled from schools around the country. In Litchfield, Illinois, a mob attacked some Witnesses who were distributing religious literature. In Richwood, West Virginia, the chief of police led a crowd of hooligans as they rounded up Witnesses, forced them to drink castor oil and marched them out of town.”

In Jackson, Mississippi, a crowd attacked a trailer park where many Witnesses lived and drove them out. In Kennebunkport, Maine, a frenzied mob burned down the local Kingdom Hall. In Nebraska, a Witness man was lured from his home, dragged away and castrated.

At the same time, people who believed that First Amendment rights were being violated by a compulsory flag salute began to protest the High Court’s decision. Some religious leaders, lawyers, and others spoke out in favor of the Witnesses’ right to live according to their religious convictions.

Three years after the Gobitas case, another lawsuit West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) regarding Witnesses reached the Supreme Court. In this instance, like Gobitas, the case was on behalf of a student who refused to comply with the requirement to salute the flag and pledge allegiance. The student was declared rebellious and expelled from school. Then that student was considered “unlawfully absent and subject to delinquency hearings.” This time the Court reversed its earlier ruling. Justice Robert Jackson delivered the opinion, concluding:

“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. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”

Got that Mr. Donald J. Trump and trumpsters?

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