The Pledge of Allegiance has not been a longstanding tradition in America; in fact, it was only officially adopted as the pledge by Congress in 1942. The adoption was done largely as a source of nationalism during the World War II effort, as the United States entered the war only six months prior.
Only 12 years later, the words “under God” were added as another point of nationalism, this time as a tool against public opinion of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
To say the least, the pledge has been viewed by many as a weapon of American nationalism rather than as an expression of love for one’s country. For that reason, the pledge has come under fire by numerous constitutional watchdog groups over the years.
During a city commission meeting on Aug. 28 in the city of Winter Garden, Fla., mayor John Rees asked police to dismiss Joseph Richardson for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It wasn’t premeditated,” Rees told the Orlando Sentinel. “I just reacted. It hit me. I said it. I gave him an option, and life will go on.”
Despite Rees’ characterization of the action as spontaneous, the mayor should not have thrown Richardson out of the city commission meeting for refusing to say the pledge. Doing so not only violates the Constitution and existing case law, but infringes on the ideals on which America was founded.
From a legal standpoint, forcing an individual to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional.
In the 1943 Supreme Court decision “West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson was all-encompassing in his interpretation of forcing school children to stand for the pledge.
“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 fore citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” Jackson said. “If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
Jackson chooses to be clear in his verbiage of the court’s majority opinion: not only was it unconstitutional to force students to say the pledge of allegiance, but any such action by the government is discouraged intrinsically by the framers of the Constitution in the First Amendment.
Critics are quick to say that if an individual wishes to enjoy all the benefits of living in one of the greatest civilizations in world history, the least they should do is recite a pledge to honor military who have given their lives for their country.
However, forcing individuals to take a pledge of allegiance would contradict the ideals that the country was founded on and what millions of men sacrificed their lives for. The Founding Fathers thought ensuring freedoms of the people so important, they chose to create a section of the Constitution dedicated to dispelling any question.
In “Texas v. Johnson” (1989), the Supreme Court set the precedent that symbolic speech is protected; choosing not to stand during an invocation and the pledge of allegiance is symbolic speech.
The plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case burned a flag, often considered to be a symbol of national unity. Despite the charged action, court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”
In the same way, the Pledge of Allegiance communicates the idea behind protecting those who wish not to say it; Rees, the mayor of Winter Garden, has no right to violate that protection.