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In the years leading up to World War II, a wave of patriotism swept the nation. States passed laws requiring public schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and salute the flag.
But Jehovah’s Witnesses believed that saluting the flag was a violation of the biblical commandment against graven images or likenesses. Thus, they refused to abide by the laws, which often led to discipline or expulsion.
Further, the students and their parents could be subject to penalties for the resulting unexcused absences. In one such case, the West Virginia Board of Education enacted a resolution requiring students to salute the flag and defining the refusal to do so as insubordination. A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses sued.
In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), the Court was asked to decide whether the First Amendment required some exception for Jehovah’s Witnesses from the requirement. Instead, the Court held that the First Amendment prohibited the school board from compelling anyone to salute the flag or recite the Pledge.
In so doing, the Court reversed its own prior holding that mandatory salutes were constitutional. This case remains a cornerstone of free-speech jurisprudence.