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Column: Is the Pledge of Allegiance just an empty performative ritual?


Marissa Barnwell did not show enough deference to the Pledge of Allegiance. And for that, she was punished.

He was walking quietly down the hallway at River Bluff High School in Lexington, South Carolina, where he is in the ninth grade. The daily intercom recitation of the oath began but Barnwell walked on.

A teacher called out to her several times, she says, but when she didn’t stop to recite the pledge, or at least to acknowledge it by standing still, the teacher grabbed her, pushed her against the wall, and finally sent her to the principal. . The director asked him: “Don’t you love your country?”

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served as editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion.

Barnwell says he has chosen not to pledge allegiance to the flag because he doesn’t believe “liberty and justice” apply fairly or equally in the United States.

And that’s your right, thanks to the United States Constitution. In fact, it is shocking that more than 70 years after the Supreme Court ruled clearly on the issue, there are still teachers who do not understand this simple reality.

I would go even further and add that it is disconcerting that the United States, which supposedly values ​​freedom of thought, expression and opinion, would nevertheless ask its students, including children so young that they cannot fully understand the meaning of words like “loyalty” . and “indivisible”: taking a daily loyalty oath.

Earlier this month, Barnwell, who says he was inspired by former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, filed suit in federal court alleging that the school district and some of its employees violated his First Amendment rights to free speech.

Unfortunately, Barnwell’s experience is far from unique. It’s just the latest chapter in the long and controversial history of the Pledge of Allegiance, a 31-word exercise in performative patriotism that often seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth.

The promise has long been attributed to Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister who claims to have written in 1892 as part of, believe it or not, a magazine promotion. As it spread through the nation’s school systems, the pledge was often accompanied by the so-called “Bellamy salute,” but that was eventually changed because it sounded too much like the fascist stiff-armed salute favored by the Nazis.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1943, more than 50 years after it was written, that the courts finally recognized that, geez, maybe swearing allegiance isn’t something we should. require of students in a country where the Constitution says that the government “will not make any law… that restricts freedom of expression.” That year, in the West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans cannot be compelled to salute the flag or pledge allegiance in public schools.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” wrote Judge Robert H. Jackson“is that no official, high or small, can prescribe what will be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or compel citizens to confess by word or act their faith in it.”

Today, 47 states still require the pledge in public schools (although thanks to the Barnette decision, individual students can opt out). california law requires daily “patriotic exercises” in public schools, specifying that the oath is one way to meet that requirement.

When I heard about the Barnwell case last week, I had already been thinking about the promise. That’s because I recently read the obituary of Alfred T. Goodwina federal appeals court judge who died in late December at age 99.

Goodwin became embroiled in another controversial aspect of the pledge: the ludicrous Eisenhower-era addition of the words “under God.” They were added in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, for one purpose: to distinguish the US from the godless communists of the Soviet Union.

In 2000, however, an atheist named Michael Newdow sued his daughter’s school district near Sacramento, saying, quite reasonably, that having students recite the words “under God” violated the First Amendment because it constituted government endorsement of religious beliefs.

She said that while her daughter could choose not to recite the pledge, that was not enough. The compromise itself, she insisted, was unconstitutional.

Incredibly, Goodwin agreed and wrote the majority opinion for a three-judge panel on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit striking down the recitation of the pledge in public schools, saying it violated the establishment clause. of the First Amendment.

Goodwin, a Nixon-appointed Republican, wrote that calling the United States a nation “under God” was just as objectionable as calling it a nation under Jesus or Vishnu or Zeus or under no god.

It was not a popular ruling, and it was not meant to survive. The US Senate immediately passed a resolution (99-0) reaffirming the compromise language and condemning Goodwin’s reasoning. President George W. Bush called the decision “ridiculous.” The Los Angeles Times called it “fundamentally dumb”.

Members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps to recite the pledge and sing “God Bless America.” More serious critics argued that a passing “acknowledgment” of religion was not the same as establishing an official state religion.

In 2004, the Supreme Court struck down Goodwin, not on constitutional grounds, but because it concluded that Newdow lacked standing to bring the case in the first place.

Still, in my opinion, Newdow and Goodwin were courageous and principled, and they were right in raising the issues. As a non-believing American, I am put off, to say the least, by the reference to God in the promise.

While the promise isn’t our biggest problem, it surely is unnecessary and all too often empty symbolism. Its purpose is indoctrination. It’s fodder for the culture wars. Too often, it’s simply a rote recitation. It is anti-secular because it is pro-God.

Marissa Barnwell is right. We should spend less time proclaiming and pledging our devotion to liberty and justice, and more time realizing those aspirations.


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