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One Witness was beaten unconscious, and those who fled were cornered by ax- and knife-wielding men riding the town’s fire truck as someone yelled, “Get the ropes! ” In Kennebunk, Maine, the Witnesses’ gathering place, Kingdom Hall, was ransacked and torched, and days of rioting ensued.In Litchfield, Ill., an angry crowd spread an American flag on the hood of a car and watched while a man repeatedly smashed the head of a Witness upon it.Douglas, Frank Murphy and Hugo Black—publicly signaled in a separate case that they thought Gobitis had been “wrongly decided.” When Barnette reached the Supreme Court in 1943, Harlan Stone, the lone dissenter in Gobitis, had risen to chief justice.The facts of the two cases mirrored each other, but the outcome differed dramatically.Most important, in ruling that Witness children could not be forced to recite the pledge, the new majority rejected the notion that legislatures, rather than the courts, were the proper place to address questions involving religious liberty.The “very purpose” of the Bill of Rights, wrote Justice Robert Jackson, was to protect some issues from the majority rule of politics.
One of the most momentous cases on the Supreme Court docket as war raged globally in 1943 was about a single sentence said aloud by schoolchildren every day. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious sect renowned for descending en masse on small towns or city neighborhoods and calling on members of other faiths to “awake” and escape the snare of the devil and his minions, felt otherwise.The reversal of Gobitis in Barnette just three years later was remarkably swift considering the typical pace of deliberations in the Supreme Court.In the wake of all the violence against Witnesses, three Supreme Court justices—William O.Some vigilantes interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision as a signal that Jehovah’s Witnesses were traitors who might be linked to a network of Nazi spies and saboteurs.In Imperial, a town outside Pittsburgh, a mob descended on a small group of Witnesses and pummeled them mercilessly.
The Witnesses insisted that God’s law demanded they refrain from all pledges of allegiance to earthly governments.