By Elaine Elinson
Los Angeles Daily Journal
June 14, 2007
Charlotte Gabrielli was 9 years old in 1936, when she was suspended from Fremont Elementary School in Sacramento. The bright little girl with brunette sausage curls and a sweet smile was not suspended for misbehaving; in fact, she was trying to obey her parents’ instructions. Her parents, both deaf, were Jehovah’s Witnesses who told Charlotte that in their religion, the “flag salute is a form of idolatry, forbidden by the divine mandates.” Like other Witness parents, they instructed their second-grader to show respect by standing quietly while the others said the pledge, but not to join in the ritual.
Charlotte’s case went all the way to the California Supreme Court. While Jehovah’s Witnesses prayed silently in the courtroom, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney argued that the California Constitution’s guarantee of the “free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference” should prohibit school officials from suspending Charlotte because of her religious beliefs. The state constitution’s assurance of religious liberty was even stronger than the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, Charlotte’s lawyer told the court, adding that patriotism could be taught by other methods.
But in 1938, the state high court upheld the compulsory flag salute, stating, “We see no violation of any article of the federal or state [c]onstitutions, …. simple salutation to the flag and repetition of the pledge … tend to stimulate in the minds of youth … lasting affection and respect for, and unfaltering loyalty to, our government.”
Following the California Supreme Court ruling in the Gabrielli case, schools all over the state cracked down on Jehovah’s Witness families. Students in Crescent City, Alhambra and Fresno faced expulsion for refusing to salute the flag. Parents in Delhi and Modesto were even arrested for failing to send their children to school.
In June 1940, on the eve of World War II, an event took place that served as a catalyst for the escalation of attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses in California and across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gobitis v. Minersville, a case from Pennsylvania, that school boards could compel all students to salute the flag or face expulsion.
The 8-1 decision by the high court reflected the political imperative to whip up enthusiasm for war and squelch any challenges to patriotism. The ruling, by Justice Felix Frankfurter, stated, “We live by symbols, and our flag is the symbol of national unity.”
The single voice of dissent, Justice Harlan Fiske Stone (who had earlier exhibited his passion for religious liberty by supporting conscientious objectors during World War I), described the treatment that Jehovah’s Witnesses were enduring in Nazi Germany: They were threatened and later arrested en masse and forced into concentration camps because they would not pledge allegiance to Hitler.
When schools opened the following autumn, Jehovah’s Witness students were expelled up and down the state – from the San Joaquin towns of Selma and Hanford, to the southern California suburbs of San Bernardino and 29 Palms, to Marin and Napa counties in the north.
The ACLU documented 2,000 school children expelled throughout the country and reported 355 violent incidents in 44 states.
The ruling also unleashed a wave of vigilantism against Jehovah’s Witnesses, leading author Sinclair Lewis to write, “The gangs behind this compulsory flag salute nonsense are trying to turn that flag from the symbol of liberty into the symbol of tyranny, fascism and death.”
Mobs attacked Jehovah’s Witness meetings in Elsinor and Mount Shasta and in Klamath Falls, Ore. At the latter meeting, more than 1,000 vigilantes stormed the convention hall, shattering plate windows, burning banners and religious literature and injuring scores at the conference. The chief of police stood within a few feet of those ransacking the convention hall and did nothing.
But on Flag Day 1943, change came from a most unlikely source. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a rare move, admitted that it had made an error in the Gobitis ruling. Justice Stone, the lone dissent in Gobitis, had become Chief Justice in 1941.
In the case of Barnett v. Virginia State Board of Education, the court, by a vote of 6-3, reversed itself. The decision by Justice Robert H. Jackson not only declared the mandatory flag salute ordinances unconstitutional, but also became a landmark for asserting the rights of religious liberty. Jackson wrote, “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 or other matter of opinion, or force citizens to confess by words or act their faith therein.”
On this Flag Day, more than 60 years later, it is important for all those who treasure religious liberty to remind themselves of the vigilantism that arose from religious intolerance in California. Let us also remember that both our flag and our Constitution’s “fixed star” protect little girls like Charlotte Gabrielli of Sacramento, who have the courage to act on their beliefs.
Elaine Elinson is an editor and communications consultant in San Francisco. She is the co-author of a forthcoming history of civil liberties in California that will be published by Heyday Books in 2008.