Pledge of Allegiance: Virginia School Superintendent Needs to Get Schooled

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The Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia)

Pledge of Allegiance: Virginia School Superintendent Needs to Get Schooled

by
Tamara Dietrich

Hampton Schools Superintendent Patrick Russo (prusso@sbo.hampton.k12.va.us) walked into spokeswoman Ann Stephens-Cherry's office recently and told her that she needed to "address" something.

Daily Press reporter Samieh Shalash didn't always stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at School Board meetings, he said, and while two attorneys told him that it wasn't illegal for her to remain seated, they all agreed it was disrespectful.

Stephens-Cherry duly passed on his concerns, so Shalash asked to meet her and Russo to discuss it.

Russo told Shalash that when she didn't stand for the pledge, he was personally insulted. In fact, he's insulted for every parent and child in the room.

Oddly, he told Shalash that he would respect her country's flag and merely expected her to respect his. Apparently, he was thrown by the head scarf that Shalash, a Muslim, wears.

Shalash explained that she was born and raised in Lexington, Ky. America is her country.

This account comes from Shalash, confirmed by Stephens-Cherry. I called Russo on Thursday to discuss it but, seconds after telling me that he'd be "glad to talk about it" once his spokeswoman briefed him, he called his spokeswoman and told her to relay the message he's on vacation and wouldn't talk to me at all.

OK, then.

First, Shalash says this isn't about her religion. Second, Shalash's reasons for not standing for the Pledge are immaterial.

Let me concede that Russo has every right to feel bad if someone doesn't salute a flag he cares deeply about. I care deeply about it, too.

But neither of us has the right to pressure or compel another to salute it.

That's not me talking - that's his own district policy.

Hampton's student handbook affirms the right "to refrain from participation in the Pledge of Allegiance."

If Russo can't compel a student to stand or pledge - and a district superintendent should know this - why on Earth would he assume that he could compel a working journalist?

If you think that we should force people to salute the flag, you're not alone.

But you're in bad company.

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler condemned Jehovah's Witnesses for not saluting the Nazi flag. Then he rounded up 10,000 of them and shipped them to concentration camps.

Witnesses here in the States began refusing, too, on religious grounds.

After two schoolchildren from a Witness family in Minersville, Pa., refused, their superintendent helped pass a resolution making refusal an act of "insubordination."

In 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

"National unity is the basis of national security," Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote. And "the flag is the symbol of the Nation's power, the emblem of freedom in its truest, best sense."

Allowing some "dissident" children to refuse, he wrote, "might cast doubts in the minds of the other children."

Within days, Americans rose up to enforce respect for the emblem of freedom. Nearly 1,500 Witnesses were beaten in hundreds of communities across the country.

Beaten by vigilantes in Texas. A Witness in Nebraska castrated. Another in Wyoming tarred and feathered. A Kingdom Hall in Maine stormed and torched. Property defaced with swastikas.

Richard Ellis, professor of politics at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., wrote "To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance."

In one case in West Virginia, Ellis said in a phone interview Wednesday, Witnesses "were rounded up, roped like cattle by the sheriff's deputies. Those who had resisted, they poured castor oil down their throats. One apparently was forced to consume so much castor oil he later urinated blood. It all took place in the mayor's office."

One Southern sheriff said Witnesses were being run out of town because "they're traitors; the Supreme Court says so. Ain't you heard?"

The backlash was so widespread, so brutal, that in three short years, the Supreme Court reversed itself utterly.

Justice Robert Jackson noted in his 1943 opinion that "those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."

"Freedom to differ," he wrote, "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."

Lesson over.

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