In this lesson, students struggle with the same challenges faced by the Supreme Court -- how to balance the rights of individuals to exercise their civil liberties and the needs and goals of others in society. Through a historic case study involving the Pledge of Allegiance, they will analyze First Amendment rights in light of laws passed to increase citizenship, knowledge of our country, and patriotism.
**Note on spelling: This lesson references the 1940 case Minersville School District v. Gobitis. The plaintiffs in the case were William and Lillian Gobitas, but a clerk's spelling error changed the case's official name as above. Therefore, when referencing the Gobitas children, the lesson uses the correct spelling of the family name, but when referencing the court case, it uses the spelling used in court documents.
This is the second of two lessons that comprise a unit on balancing the rights of individuals with the goals of society. For the first lesson, see Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Lesson Plan. For extension activities to use with this unit, visit the Supreme Court website.
- Describe how the Supreme Court decided two cases when individual rights conflicted with societal goals: Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) and West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
- Analyze and evaluate the balance of exercising civil liberties and weighing national or state goals
Approx. (1) 45 minute period
- Minersville School District v. Gobitis QuickTime Video
Before The Lesson
- If your classroom does not already have an American flag in it, you will want to get one for the exercise in this activity.
- Before class begins, download the Minersville School District v. Gobitis QuickTime Video.
- Download and print the The Pledge of Allegiance ( For Teachers ). Make several copies of the original and cut them up so that each student will have a “Pledge card.”
- Consider inviting a resource person to help you teach this lesson. Appropriate people could include a lawyer, judge, law school student, or a legislator.
Part I: Introduction
1. Ask students to stand, face the flag, and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
NOTE: If students do not regularly say the pledge during your class, they may be surprised. Try to minimize discussion about it at this point in the lesson.
2. Tell students they are going to say the pledge again, but a little differently. Distribute a “Pledge Card” to each student. Give the following very specific instructions to students and watch to see that they are following each step of the directions before you give the next step:
- Stand up and face the flag.
- With one hand, hold the Pledge card where you can read it.
- Extend the other arm straight and raise it to head height.
- Turn the palm of that straight arm so it is facing up and pointed at the flag.
- Now read the Pledge that appears on the card. Read it slowly, line by line.
Note: If students object, make a mental note of it and explain that you will discuss their objections in a moment.
3. Explain to students that they have just said the Pledge as it was said in schools and communities across the country in the 1930s.
Note: If students protested saying the pledge, this is the time to have a brief discussion of the reasons for their protest.
4. Ask students:
Did any of you notice that the pledge you just said is different than the pledge that is used now?
If you did notice, do you know what is different?
A: Now, we place our hand over our heart and leave it there. The words "under God" were added to the Pledge in 1954.
Part II: The First Amendment and the Pledge
Distribute The Gobitas Children and the Pledge Questions. Ask students to preview the questions on the handout before they watch the video segment.
1. Play the Minersville School District v. Gobitis QuickTime Video. After viewing the segment, ask students to complete the handout answering questions A through E.
2. Discuss the answers students gave to the questions on the handout. Use the following responses as a guide:
A. Why did the Gobitas children refuse to say the pledge and to salute the flag?
Answer: They were Jehovah's Witnesses. In their religion, it is sacrilegious to pay homage to the flag because that would be a form of idolatry, which was forbidden.
B. Which liberty and amendment do you think they claimed was being violated?
Answer: Their First Amendment freedom of religion
C. In your opinion, what reasons might a government or elected school board have for requiring people to say the pledge?
Answer: Answers will vary. One reason might be to protect and honor a nation and its national symbol.
D. What was the outcome when the Gobitis case was decided by the lower court?
Answer: The Gobitas family won.
E. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court, which decided the case with an 8-1 majority. What did the Supreme Court decide? What were the main reasons given for the decision?
Answer: Frankfurter said that even thought he did not like the school's policy, the school had the right to make that policy and to enforce it. The Court should restrain itself from interfering with "reasonable" actions of the legislative and executive branches. Frankfurter thought "democracy should run its course" -- that if the majority of an elected school board wanted a flag salute and pledge, there should be a flag salute and pledge. If people do not like the laws passed by elected officials, they can try to change those policies democratically. He had faith that the democratic means through which laws are passed would provide enough protection for individuals.
Part III: Culminating Activity
1. Ask students to recall what happened to many Jehovah's Witnesses after the Gobitis decision. You may want to use the following information to guide the discussion.
There were many stories documenting the harassment and brutal treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses. The Gobitas children and other families were forced to relocate to another town or city. Others were publicly humiliated by being forced to kiss the flag. Some Jehovah's Witnesses were tarred and feathered, kidnapped and castrated.
2. Distribute West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett. Ask students to sit with two other students. Ask a student to volunteer to read the directions on the handout. Confirm that everyone understands their tasks. Allow students approx 15-20 minutes to complete the assignment.
3. In a group discussion, ask students:
o By show of thumbs up or hands, who agrees most with Opinion A?
o What makes this the most compelling argument for you?
o By show of thumbs up or hands, who agrees most with Opinion B?
o What makes this the most compelling argument for you?
4. Confirm that students understand Justice Frankfurter was not saying liberties are unimportant. He was arguing that the Court should exercise judicial restraint instead of interfering with laws made by democratic institutions.
o By show of hands or thumbs up, who thinks Opinion A represents the majority (winning) opinion? Why do you think so?
o Why do the rest of you think it is not the majority opinion?
5. Explain to students that Opinion A was, in fact, the majority opinion. The sentiments of Justice Jackson, who wrote it, have become known as the most eloquent arguments in favor of liberties that the Court has ever produced. Remind students that of course the road to extending liberties is a "bumpy one," as Ms. Biskupic said, but the Court lurched in that direction throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
Check For Understanding
1. Tell students:
When people from other countries become naturalized citizens of this country, they are required to pledge their allegiance to the United States, to renounce their allegiance to all other countries, and to promise to fight on behalf of the United States, if asked.
2. Ask students to write one or two paragraphs to answer the question: Should people be required to pledge their allegiance to the United States before they can become citizens?
3. Collect student papers at the end of class or allow students to complete the assignment for homework.
4. Explain to students:
The Gobitis and West Virginia cases were among the first ever in which the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the balance of exercising civil liberties and weighing national or state goals. Over the next 50 years, the balance tended more and more to favor individual rights. Cases such as Gideon, Mapp, Miranda, and others helped to define this era as building a "nation of liberties."