I'm ridiculously fortunate in many ways. I won't bore you with my gratitude for my family or friends or job or material circumstances.
Today I want to mention that I am thankful for people who stood of for rights that I now enjoy.
The inspiration for these thanks is this fascinating entry at The FIRE's blog. That entry describes a recent round table discussion involving Gathie Barnett Edmonds and Marie Barnett Snodgrass, better know as the litigants in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943). Gathie and Marie were Jehovah's Witnesses and objected on religious grounds to their school district's mandatory flag salute. To our modern sensibilities, the level of coercion involved and the possible consequences are shocking:
The resolution originally required the 'commonly accepted salute to the Flag' which it defined. Objections to the salute as 'being too much like Hitler's' were raised by the Parent and Teachers Association, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, and the Federation of Women's Clubs. Some modification appears to have been made in deference to these objections, but no concession was made to Jehovah's Witnesses. What is now required is the 'stiff-arm' salute, the saluter to keep the right hand raised with palm turned up while the following is repeated: 'I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands; one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'
Failure to conform is 'insubordination' dealt with by expulsion. Readmission is denied by statute until compliance. Meanwhile the expelled child is 'unlawfully absent' and may be proceeded against as a delinquent. His parents or guardians are liable to prosecution, and if convicted are subject to fine not exceeding $50 and jail term not exceeding thirty days.
Appellees, citizens of the United States and of West Virginia, brought suit in the United States District Court for themselves and others similarly situated asking its injunction to restrain enforcement of these laws and regulations against Jehovah's Witnesses. The Witnesses are an unincorporated body teaching that the obligation imposed by law of God is superior to that of laws enacted by temporal government. Their religious beliefs include a literal version of Exodus, Chapter 20, verses 4 and 5, which says: 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them.' They consider that the flag is an 'image' within this command. For this reason they refuse to salute it. Children of this faith have been expelled from school and are threatened with exclusion for no other cause. Officials threaten to send them to reformatories maintained for criminally inclined juveniles. Parents of such children have been prosecuted and are threatened with prosecutions for causing delinquency.
But Gathie and Marie and their parents stood up and sued for an injunction preventing enforcement of these rules. As The FIRE points out, this was a terribly unpopular position at the time, and the result was uncertain. But they won. The case yielded a crucial principle (that the government cannot coerce a student to take the pledge) and one of the most justifiably famous passages in American jurisprudence:
Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard. It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings. There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority … But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. 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.
Although that is the most famous passage, I'm also fond of the following one, which rejects the increasingly the increasingly prevalent argument "your failure to confirm is an affront":
The freedom asserted by these appellees does not bring them into collision with rights asserted by any other individual. It is such conflicts which most frequently require intervention of the State to determine where the rights of one end and those of another begin. But the refusal of these persons to participate in the ceremony does not interfere with or deny rights of others to do so. Nor is there any question in this case that their behavior is peaceable and orderly. The sole conflict is between authority and rights of the individual.
So be thankful for the Gathies and Maries, who stood up in terribly lonely circumstances for what was right and won important freedoms for each of us. Follow the link to the FIRE and read the transcript of the round table discussion if you have time — their perspective on these events of 60 years ago is fascinating.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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