Constitutional Faces: Lillian Gobitas Klose (1935-2014)

September 7th, 2014

The Times reports that Lillian Gobitas Klose, the famous student who refused to salute the American flag, has died.

Lillian Gobitas Klose, whose refusal, on religious grounds, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a seventh grader in a Pennsylvania public school in 1935 ignited national indignation, as well as a roiling legal fight that led to an expansion of First Amendment rights, died on Aug. 22 at her home in Fayetteville, Ga. She was 90.

Her daughter, Judith Klose, confirmed the death.

Lillian Gobitas’s family belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and heeded a leader’s call to refuse to recite the pledge in compliance with biblical commands against idolatry. On Oct. 22, 1935, Lillian’s brother William Gobitas, a fifth grader, refused to say the pledge at his public school in Minersville, Pa. The next day, Lillian did the same thing. The town school board responded by passing a resolution calling refusal to recite the pledge an act of insubordination. It then expelled the Gobitas children.

“They expelled us right then and there,” Mrs. Klose said in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003. “They said, ‘Don’t come back.’ ”

For 12-year-old Lillian, the sting from her act of conscience — which she said was entirely the result of her own thinking, not her parents’ — was sharp. Children threw rocks at her, The Washington Post reported in 1988.

She overheard two girls talking. “We used to be friends with her,” one said. People jeered the family on the streets. William was beaten by schoolmates. Local churches led a boycott of the family’s grocery store.

“It got real ugly,” Mrs. Klose told The Morning Call, a daily newspaper published in Allentown, Pa., in 1988. “They thought we were Communists, Nazis. They felt real righteous about it.”

The controversy led to an eight-year legal battle. It pitted the virtues of a strong national government — unified by patriotic sentiment as the country was edging toward war — against the protection of individuals from being coerced by that government. The Supreme Court decided 8 to 1 in 1940 that compelling students to say the pledge was not a violation of religious freedom, with Justice Felix Frankfurter writing the majority opinion.

The ruling sparked attacks on 1,488 Witnesses in 44 states, the American Civil Liberties Union reported.

In West Virginia, Witnesses were forced to swallow large amounts of castor oil. In Wyoming, they were tarred and feathered; in Nebraska, they were castrated. In Maine, a mob of 2,500 burned down a local Witness place of worship, known as a Kingdom Hall.



Lillian Gobitas with her brother William and her father Walter (1940).