The Hughes Court (1930–41)

First Amendment

In what decision did the Hughes Court uphold a flag-salute law?

The Hughes Court ruled 8–1 in Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) that a Pennsylvania flag-salute law was constitutional. The law required public school students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Minersville, Pennsylvania, contended that the law infringed on their freedom of religion. Twelve-year-old Lillian Gobitas and her ten-year-old brother William were expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag. (The correct spelling of their name was Gobitas; a court clerk misspelled it as “Gobitis” and it stayed that way in the official records).

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the family, finding that the flag-salute was a constitutional patriotic exercise not designed to infringe on religious beliefs. “National unity is the basis of national security,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter for the majority. “The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment.” For their part, the Gobitas children never returned to public school after the decision.

The conviction of African American communist activist Angelo Herndon (holding child) was overturned by the Hughes Court in 1937. The Court ruled that Herndon’s efforts to recruit a few members to the Communist Party did not constitute an attempt to incite an insurrection. Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

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