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Teaching Civic Ideals through Court Case Primary Sources

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This post is by Jen Reidel, the 2019-2020 Library of Congress Civics Teacher in Residence.

The American judicial system is one of the most important facets of the United States’ democracy, yet the least understood. Many court cases illustrate democratic ideals and definitions. Consequently, court cases and related primary sources are an effective way to teach and personalize civic principles, historic moments in time, and the structure of the U.S. court system in narrative form.

Consider using the Minersville v. Gobitis (1940) [note that the Gobitas family name was misspelled in court documents] case as an entry point into the judicial system, a discussion about First Amendment religious freedoms, and the tension in our society between the common good and individual rights.

Page one of Letter, Billy Gobitas to Minersville, Pennsylvania, school directors, explaining why the young Jehovah’s Witness refused to salute the American flag, 5 November 1935.

Page two of Gobitas Letter

On October 22, 1935, ten-year-old William (Billy) Gobitas in Minersville, Pennsylvania, refused to participate in his class Pledge of Allegiance due to his deeply held religious convictions as a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. Billy believed saluting the flag violated his faith’s commands against worshiping any “graven image.” His older sister Lilian followed suit the next day. On November 6, 1935, the Minersville School Board enforced a policy which had been adopted unanimously requiring all students and staff to recite the pledge daily. The policy dictated that “refusal to [say the Pledge] shall be regarded as an act of insubordination and dealt with accordingly.” Consequently, the Gobitas children were expelled from public school.

Evening Star, June 3, 1940

Give students Billy’s Letter to the Minersville School Board. You might consider asking what they observe about its format, tone, and content. They may notice it is formal and respectful, with Billy outlining his religious reasons for refusing to say the pledge. Next, direct students to evaluate how Billy addresses his perspective of patriotism in context of his religious beliefs. Prompt students to generate questions about individual rights as related to the Gobitas case.  Additionally, encourage  students to read the First Amendment and determine what guarantee(s) might apply to Billy’s case.

The Gobitas family sued the Minersville School District on the basis that expelling the students for refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance violated religious freedom.  Consider introducing students to the levels of the judicial system that ruled on the case through analysis of “Supreme Court Rules State May Require Pupils to Salute the Flag,” [Washington, DC] Evening Star, June 3, 1940.Place students in pairs or jigsaw groups to analyze a specific part for information it reveals relating to the levels of the court system, the legal arguments of the case, and the outcome for the Gobitas family.  Prompt students to share their findings.

After studying Billy’s letter and other documents, facilitate a conversation with students regarding when an individual’s right should be violated for the common good? This conversation may lead to further discussion relating to how rights are interpreted in a historical moment as well as how our freedoms have been defined by individuals’ respective cases. A possible extension is to study the West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) case, which overturned the Gobitas case, and have students identify what factors influenced a different verdict.

What questions or new understandings did your students develop?

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