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The Court rejected the Witnesses’ claim, holding that the secular interests of the school district in fostering patriotism were paramount.
In the majority opinion, written during the same month that France fell to the Nazis, Felix Frankfurter wrote: “National unity is the basis of national security.” The plaintiffs, said Frankfurter, were free to “fight out the wise use of legislative authority in the forum of public opinion and before legislative assemblies.” In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Harlan Stone argued that “constitutional guarantees or personal liberty are not always absolutes…but it is a long step, and one which I am unwilling to take, that government may, as a supposed educational measure…compel public affirmations which violate their public conscience.” Further, said Stone, the prospect of help for this “small and helpless minority” by the political process was so remote that Frankfurter had effectively “surrendered…the liberty of small minorities to the popular will.” Public reaction to Gobitis bordered on hysteria, colored by the hotly debated prospect of American participation in the war in Europe.
The Witness sect was founded in the 1870s, and caused a stir when the founder, Charles Taze Russell, a haberdasher in Pittsburgh, predicted the world would come to an end in 1914.
Russell died in 1916; he was succeeded by his lawyer Joseph Franklin Rutherford, who shrewdly emphasized that the Apocalypse was near, but not so near that Witnesses didn’t have time to convert new followers, which they were required to do lest they miss out on salvation.
The steadfast refusal of Witnesses to pledge, combined with their refusal to serve in the military or to support America’s war effort in any way, triggered public anger.
Witnesses soon became a ubiquitous presence in courtrooms across the country.
This “blood guilt” propelled in-your-face proselytizing by Witnesses in various communities on street corners and in door-to-door visits.