Stand or sit, pledge a matter of respect Chronicle Editorial / April 30 2017

THE ISSUE: Board appalled by pledge rule.

OUR OPINION: Anger understandable, but constitutional rights must prevail.

One of the vexations of living in a free society is the inevitability of individuals using their inalienable rights to speak or act in ways you detest with every fiber of your being.

The opposite, it’s worth remembering, is also true.

The Citrus County School Board found itself vexed this week when, by order of the state, the district was forced to amend its Pledge of Allegiance policy to allow students to sit through the pledge without placing their hands on their hearts, provided they have a note from their parents. Students could previously abstain, but were required to stand.

The state ordered the change for a good reason: The law is absolutely clear on this matter, and has been for nearly three-quarters of a century. In 1943, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette that forcing children to recite the pledge was a violation of First Amendment rights. For those wary of government overreach, the rationale should be apparent: What if it was not the flag students were being asked or forced to pledge allegiance to, but the government itself or a particular leader? One need only look to nations like North Korea, where long-dead Kim Il-Sung is still revered as eternal president of the republic, to see the danger in unquestioning, uncompromising patriotism.

The Barnette case also established that districts cannot punish students for refusing to stand for the pledge, a nuance the Florida Legislature only recently addressed.

School board members were not happy about the change, nor were their constituents.

“You stand out of respect, so this bothers me,” said board member Linda Powers.

She’s not wrong. Respect compels many to stand and salute, just as it compels many secular individuals to bow their heads before breaking bread with religious family members. But it is also respect that compels us to allow students to sit and remain silent, or for relatives to remain unbowed while we pray.

In penning the majority opinion on Barnette, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “the refusal of these persons to participate in the ceremony does not interfere with or deny rights of others to do so. Nor is there any question in this case that their behavior is peaceable and orderly. The sole conflict is between authority and rights of the individual. The State asserts power to condition access to public education on making a prescribed sign and profession and at the same time to coerce attendance by punishing both parent and child. The latter stand on a right of self-determination in matters that touch individual opinion and personal attitude.”

It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

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