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“One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, may not be submitted to vote….
Fundamental rights depend on the outcome of no elections.” Jackson’s opinion was laced with condemnation of enforced patriotism and oblique hints at the slaughter taking place in Hitler’s Europe.
Every day in court for Rutherford and the Witnesses’ chief attorney, Hayden Covington, was an opportunity to preach the true meaning of law to the judges and to confront the satanic government.
In late 1935, Witness Walter Gobitas’ two children—Lillian, 12, and Billy, 10—were expelled from school in Minersville, Pa., because they balked at the mandatory recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a long court battle ensued. Minersville School District (as with Barnette, a court clerk misspelled the family surname) made its way to the Supreme Court in the spring of 1940, Rutherford and Covington framed their argument in religious terms, claiming that any statute contrary to God’s law as given to Moses must be void.
This “blood guilt” propelled in-your-face proselytizing by Witnesses in various communities on street corners and in door-to-door visits.
Soon the sect developed a reputation for exhibiting “astonishing powers of annoyance,” as one legal commentator put it. He routinely encouraged public displays of contempt for “Satan’s world,” which included all other religions and all secular governments. S.—roughly 40,000—was so small that many Americans could ignore them.
The reversal of Gobitis in Barnette just three years later was remarkably swift considering the typical pace of deliberations in the Supreme Court.
Barnette is just one of several major Supreme Court decisions involving freedom of religion, speech, assembly and conscience that arose from clashes between Jehovah’s Witnesses and government authorities.Douglas, Frank Murphy and Hugo Black—publicly signaled in a separate case that they thought Gobitis had been “wrongly decided.” When Barnette reached the Supreme Court in 1943, Harlan Stone, the lone dissenter in Gobitis, had risen to chief justice.The facts of the two cases mirrored each other, but the outcome differed dramatically.But in Nazi Germany, no group was too small to escape the eye of new chancellor Adolf Hitler, who banned the Witnesses after they refused to show their fealty to him with the mandatory “Heil Hitler” raised-arm salute.(Many Witnesses would later perish in his death camps.) In response, Rutherford praised the German Witnesses and advised all of his followers to refuse to participate in any oaths of allegiance that violated (in his view) the Second Commandment: “Thou shall have no Gods before me.” With conflict looming around the world in the 1930s, many states enacted flag salute requirements, especially in schools.