Here we go again. Some politician hungry for a headline — in South Dakota this time –wants to make school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag as a daily ritual.
Applause erupts countrywide. My ContextFlorida colleague Steve Kurlander endorsed the idea last week.
True patriotism is taught, and learned, only by respecting the values that distinguish American freedom from the totalitarianism flourishing elsewhere.
Those freedoms were defined most memorably in a 1943 Supreme Court decision, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. Applying the First Amendment, the court ruled 6-3 that the government can never — I repeat, never — force citizens to profess a belief in anything.
The court said that a compulsory flag pledge violates that fundamental freedom.
Since then — early in the Cold War –Congress amended the Pledge to also express a belief in God. That is most certainly not the government’s business.
Yet Rep. Hal Wick, the South Dakota legislator, professes that a compulsory flag pledge teaches respect for the Constitution.
“We are getting further and further away from talking about what the Constitution says,” said Wick. “This is one way to show respect. I think it should be part of every child’s education.”
The Constitution must have been missing from Wick’s own education.
Not a word in it requires a loyalty oath, or any sort of pledge, from anyone except each new president, who must promise to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution itself.
No Pledge of Allegiance was recited before Abraham Lincoln’s immortal address at Gettysburg 150 years ago this month.
The Pledge didn’t exist until 1892, when Francis Bellamy composed it in connection with the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage.
Bellamy, a Baptist clergyman — and a Socialist, by the way — didn’t see any need to mention God.
In 1942, the same year in which Congress first got around to recognizing the original Pledge, the nation was fighting World War II, with no guarantee that we would win it.
The West Virginia Board of Education adopted a resolution requiring the pledge in public and private schools. Children who refused would be expelled, subject to prosecution as delinquents, and their parents could be jailed.
This was profoundly offensive to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religion forbids tribute to any “image.” Their case went to the Supreme Court.
Only three years before, in a case from Pennsylvania, the court had voted 8-1 to uphold a compulsory flag-salute law.
Hundreds of reports of Witnesses being persecuted — beaten, threatened with jail, their meeting houses burned — informed the court that it had made a grave mistake.
On June 14, 1943, in one of the swiftest reversals ever, the court ruled that West Virginia’s compulsory pledge was a violation of the First and Fourteenth amendments.
The majority opinion by Justice Robert Jackson has been cited ever since as an eloquent expression of freedom’s essential meaning in America.
To uphold the compulsory pledge, he wrote, would mean “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….
“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….
The freedom “to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.
“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 occur to us.”
This was in the midst of a war for national survival. Jackson’s opinion defined brilliantly what it was that we were defending.
It still needs defending — from the arrogance of some domestic politicians no less than from enemies abroad.