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Saying No to the Pledge

By       Message James Mullin     Permalink
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Every person listening to the Star-Spangled Banner may freely call to mind those images and thoughts that make up his or her personal vision of America. Most of us don't need a flag as big as a football field, a uniformed color guard, or a Phantom Jet fly-over to feel patriotic.  Hearing the National Anthem is enough. 

I also get emotional and patriotic listening to God Bless America, America the Beautiful, My Country 'Tis of Thee, the Navy Hymn and Taps, but the Pledge of Allegiance leaves me cold - like Big Brother is watching over my shoulder.  I wonder why.

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Back in 1892, (I wasn't around) when a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy drafted the Pledge, it went like this: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."  This pledge slowly gained wider acceptance and didn't change much for 50 years.

Then, in 1940, with World War II well underway in Europe, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Minersville School District v. Gobitis that students in public schools could be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The case was brought by Jehovah's Witnesses whose children had dutifully (to their parents) declined to say the pledge on religious grounds - they considered the flag salute to be idolatry. Those students who refused to pledge were expelled.

With American participation in the war more and more likely, any refusal to pledge loyalty to the flag was seen as evidence of traitorous intent.  Though the Jehovah's Witnesses lost the case, they were subjected to mob violence and intimidation.

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In one week alone, the Justice Department received reports of hundreds of physical assaults.  Jehovah's Witnesses meeting places were burned and their leaders driven out of town.  Officials threatened to send nonconformist Witnesses' children to reformatories for juvenile delinquents.

A year later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war on Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.  Oddly enough, it was the regimentation of our enemies' autocratic societies that made the pledge seem like indoctrination. It wasn't about the words; it was about the gestures. 

At the time, our Pledge began with the right hand over the heart, and then, when the phrase "to the Flag" was said, the arm was extended toward the Flag, and it remained outstretched during the rest of the pledge, with the palm facing upward, as if to lift the flag.

That outstretched arm was now identified with Nazism and Fascism. Objections to the salute as "being too much like Hitler's" were raised by the Parent and Teachers Association, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, and the Federation of Women's Clubs.

In 1943, with American armies and navies fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific, the Supreme Court overturned its 3-year-old decision in Minersville v. Gobitis, this time ruling in favor of another group of Jehovah Witnesses.   

The court's decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (319 U.S. 624) said that any State making it compulsory for children in the public schools to salute the flag and pledge allegiance was violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution! 

There were no protests, riots, or acts of violence after the ruling, and the decision has never been overturned.  In fact, the majority opinion delivered by Justice Robert Jackson has become one of the great statements in American constitutional law and history.  The following are excerpts:

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"The State may require instruction and study of all in our history and in the structure and organization of our government, including the guaranties of civil liberty, which tend to inspire patriotism and love of country...

Here, however, we are dealing with a compulsion of students to declare a belief.  There is no doubt that, in connection with the pledges, the flag salute is a form of utterance."

To sustain the compulsory flag salute we are required to say that a Bill of Rights which guards the individual's right to speak his own mind, left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind."

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Born: Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Vietnam veteran (non-combatant) Bachelors in English, U. of Iowa, MLS from UC Berkeley, Law Laibrarian, Prison Teacher, Curriculum developer, Progressive

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