In October of 1935, Lynn, Mass., schools expelled eight-year-old Carleton Nicholls for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, setting off nearly a decade of strife between Jehovah’s Witnesses and patriotic civic groups.
Two events led to the controversy. In 1935, the Massachusetts legislature, at the urging of fraternal organizations, passed a law requiring “each teacher shall cause the pupils under his charge to salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag.”
With the Great Depression continuing to make life miserable for many Americans, communism was gaining appeal and traditionalists were seeking ways to make sure children were not being taught to question capitalism in schools. Even though the pledge was a regular feature in most schools, the legislature wanted it stressed that all schools should be reciting it. James Michael Curley, then governor, gladly signed the proposal into law.
Meanwhile, in Germany Hitler was persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses with increasing intensity for refusing to swear allegiance to the Nazi Party. Eventually the Third Reich would imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses in the notorious concentration camps and kill thousands of them.
In June of 1935, J.F. Rutherford, a leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was asked if the refusal to swear allegiance was limited to Germany. He declared that he believed saluting any earthly emblem was unfaithful to God, and he would not do it. Some in the church took this to mean the salute to the flag was in opposition to church teaching.
So, while in 1934 Jehovah’s Witnesses such as Nicholls had willingly saluted the flag, in 1935 everything changed.
The controversy soon spread. In Saugus, Mass., Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to say the pledge. Elsewhere around the country similar protests were taking place.
The town of Belchertown, Mass., escalated the issue further. It not only expelled three children from the Opielowski family from school for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance – Anna, 10; Sophie, 12 and Dominic, 13 – a judge sentenced them to be locked up in reform school. Their father Ignace was fined.
The Opielowski case became a sensation in newspapers across the country. The Daughters of the American Revolution called for the family to be deported and some editorial writers said the family was being disloyal. Others ridiculed the Massachusetts law as an infringement of liberty. Still others tried to hand a black eye to the Catholic Church, since Curley was Catholic and the church supported the pledge of allegiance laws.
The progressive media, meanwhile, snickered. While universities and colleges were yielding their principles and complying with requirements for loyalty oaths for faculty and administrators, children were willing to stand fast and go to jail for their beliefs.
Nationally, the hysteria over the Pledge of Allegiance reached a new level in 1940 when the Supreme Court ruled in a Pennsylvania case that requiring students to recite the pledge was not an infringement on their liberty. Only New Hampshire’s Harlan Fiske Stone opposed the decision, arguing that forcing citizens to express beliefs that they did not hold violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
Regardless, the law was now set and it unleashed a wave of clashes across the country between angry citizen mobs and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were unpopular for their stand on the pledge and for opposing war. Two such clashes occurred in Maine.
In Kennebunk, a Jehovah’s Witness church was harassed by local residents and pelted with rocks. On June 9, a group of congregants were in the hall when a car stopped out front. The two men in the car would later say they stopped only to change drivers.
Inside the church, the congregants said the men threw rocks at the building. One of the Jehovah’s Witnesses inside fired a shotgun that hit the two men, slightly injuring one and more seriously injuring the other, resulting in his having his leg amputated. Later that night, the church was torched by a crowd reported to be more than 2,000 strong.
The shooter would be convicted of assault with intent to kill. Arson charges against two men would be dropped for lack of evidence.
In August, the violence worsened in the town of North Windham, Maine. Arthur Cox, a Jehovah’s Witness from Philadelphia was in town proselytizing. In addition to handing out the church’s trademark newsletter the Watchtower, Cox also had a portable phonograph that he used to play a message from J.F. Rutherford.
Cox and another man visited the garage of deputy sheriff Dean Pray to play the phonograph. The offer infuriated Pray who demanded Cox leave. The deputy chased the two men into the street where Cox fired three shots from a revolver at him, leaving him dead.
Cox was already on bail from a previous arrest for his part in a fight that broke out in Portland when someone tried to destroy church literature that Cox was distributing.
Protesters converged on the Portland courthouse, which was tightly guarded for Cox’s trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.
In 1943, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of reversing itself, holding that the Pledge of Allegiance can’t be mandated.