Billy Gobitis was not a troublemaker, but he was in trouble at school. Big trouble. Along with his older sister, Lillian, age 12, 10-year-old Billy had been expelled. The year was 1935; the place was Minersville, Pennsylvania; and the Gobitis siblings, in defiance of a school district requirement, had refused to salute the American flag. Other students threw rocks at them. Billy’s teacher tried to physically force his arm into the salute position (in those days, this meant extending the arm upward at a forty-five-degree angle with the palm turned up, a gesture with eerie similarity to the Roman salute, then popular in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany).
Billy was a respectful boy, and he felt he should explain his actions in a letter to the schoolboard. “I am a true follower of Christ,” the young Jehovah’s Witness explained, scrawling out a determined, if somewhat uneven schoolboy cursive. “I do not salute the flag, not because I do not love my country, but I love my country and I love God more and I must obey his commandments.” One of those commandments, Billy believed, forbade worshiping idols, and he thought the flag salute fell afoul of that command.