If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) (majority opinion by Justice Jackson).
Just three years earlier, in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution permitted the Minersville School District in Pennsylvania to expel Lillian and William Gobitis for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. As Jehovah's Witnesses, they believed allegiance could and should only be pledged to God, and while they might respect the flag, it wasn't God. Tough.
There was but a single dissent.
Three years can, occasionally, be a long time.
Barnette was the same issue. Again Jehovah's Witnesses. This time the vote was 6-3. The other way.
Justices Black and Douglas changed sides. They explained.
Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest. Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws enacted by the people's elected representatives within the bounds of express constitutional prohibitions. These laws must, to be consistent with the First Amendment, permit the widest toleration of conflicting viewpoints consistent with a society of free men.
Neither our domestic tranquillity in peace nor our martial effort in war depend on compelling little children to participate in a ceremony which ends in nothing for them but a fear of spiritual condemnation. If, as we think, their fears are groundless, time and reason are the proper antidotes for their errors. The ceremonial, when enforced against conscientious objectors, more likely to defeat than to serve its high purpose, is a handy implement for disguised religious persecution. As such, it is inconsistent with our Constitution's plan and purpose.
And so it has been.
Unless you happen to be in the courtroom of Chancery Court Judge Littlejohn in Tupelo, Mississippi when he orders everyone in the courtroom to stand and recite the pledge. Unless you happen to be Danny Lampley, an attorney who was in the courtroom on business and, it is reported, stood respectfully but did not recite.
Unless you happen to be jailed for refusing.
I assume that even in Mississippi judges take an oath to obey the Constitution.