‘West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette’ Turns 70

June 17, 2013

Supreme Court - ShutterstockLast Friday, Flag Day, marked the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943). In Barnette, the Court held that requiring schoolchildren to salute the American flag and recite the pledge of allegiance violated their First Amendment rights. Writing for the majority, Justice Robert H. Jackson (the namesake of FIRE’s Jackson Legal Fellowship) stated:  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. In establishing that even children share First Amendment rights to free exercise of their religion and freedom of expression (including the right not to be compelled to speak), this decision set the stage for many other critical cases that have protected students’ rights for decades, like Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). Previously on The Torch, FIRE’s Will Creeley pointed to an inspiring roundtable discussion with plaintiffs Gathie Barnett Edmonds and Marie Barnett Snodgrass, whose admirable decision to stand up for their rights has affected generations of students across the country. The full Barnette opinion is well worth reading, as is the transcript of "Recollections of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette," available on the St. John’s University website.