An enforced pledge

Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 11:24 p.m.
Otherwise patriotic Americans - some of them, anyhow - seem to have a blind spot about the Pledge of Allegiance.
On one hand, they think the pledge is a terrific affirmation of the love and devotion they feel for their country. On the other hand, they think that dissenters should be compelled to agree - even if it deprives them of a tiny bit of their "liberty and justice for all."
We shouldn't have to be arguing about this in 2006, but the issue still arises - usually egged on by opportunistic politicians - with a disturbing frequency.
The latest incident is in Palm Beach County, where a 17-year-old junior at Boynton Beach High School wants the American Civil Liberties Union to help him press a grievance against the school administration. The student, Cameron Frazier, says his math teacher berated him publicly for refusing to stand and recite the pledge with his classmates. He said the teacher and an assistant principal ordered him removed from the class after the incident.
The law may be on the school's side. A Florida statute requires all students to stand when the pledge is recited, and the law also requires that all students recite the pledge unless they have notes from parents exempting them.
Frazier's mother supports his refusal to join in the pledge, even though she didn't sign a release beforehand. Frazier says he hasn't recited the pledge in school since he was in the sixth grade, but nobody in authority has objected until now.
Although state law may support the school, long-settled case law is to the contrary.
Back in 1943, in the midst of World War II when patriotism was at a peak, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision declaring unconstitutional a West Virginia law requiring all public school students to salute the American flag and recite the pledge each day. The law was challenged on religious grounds by some Jehovah's Witnesses.
An excerpt from the majority opinion, written by Justice Robert H. Jackson: "To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds."
". . . 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."
If Cameron Frazier manages to get his case to court, there is little doubt that he would succeed in having the state law invalidated, based on the 1943 precedent and other case law since then. Rather than wait for that to happen, the Florida Legislature ought to head off the controversy by removing the compulsory portion of the law.
We see nothing wrong with incorporating the Pledge of Allegiance into school routine. It serves as a useful reminder of the unique nature of our country and the freedoms we enjoy. But making the recitation mandatory - or subjecting dissenters to punishment or official ostracism - is a blow to those freedoms.
By the way, the issue in this case has nothing to do with the phrase "under God," which was added to the pledge in the 1950s. That was when the U.S. was in the midst of its Cold War struggle against "godless communism" - and long after the 1943 decision written by Jackson. Litigation continues to swirl around that subject because of the implications of state-sponsored religion.

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