I think that’s probably what our local, small town Midwestern primary school thinks of me now, after I sent my son’s summer school kindergarten teacher an email asking that she not require him to say the Pledge of Allegiance.  I’m posting a slightly edited version of the letter below the fold–both because I thought some of you might find this culture-war “dispatch from the front lines” interesting in its own right, and because the excerpts I quoted, from the 1943 SCOTUS decision that guaranteed all students the right to abstain from the pledge, are in my view among the most stirring, inspiring–and, yes, patriotic–words I’ve ever read, anywhere.


Dear Mrs. —–,

First off, thanks again for not only being such a kind and caring protector of our son, but also, it strikes me, an excellent teacher (I’m really struck by how much he has learned already about numbers, letters, nature, etc., even in “fun” summer school).  
Now, one more thing that [my son] talked to me about just now, and I hope you’ll take this in the friendly spirit I intend in sharing it.  There aren’t many kids, I know, especially in the “heartland”, who think twice about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.  I myself was always against it, though, at least once I attained a certain age.  It appears that [my son] is more precocious than I was in this respect, because we have never told him anything about the Pledge yet he characterised it as a “prayer” (I agree, more or less) and said he didn’t want to say it but was told he had to.  In fact, though, there was a Supreme Court case in 1943 (right in the middle of World War II!) that decided it was an unconstitutional violation of a student’s civil liberties to require him or her to recite the Pledge.  

I would bet 99% of teachers and school officials across the country are not aware of this right, because it is (sadly, in my opinion) one that is hardly ever exercised.  But it is the law of the land, and I am proud of my son for coming to the conclusion on his own that he doesn’t want to say it and want to support his right not to.  (I would honestly not want to be one of those parents who trains their small children to carry on their political agenda without comprehending it.)  

Again, I hope you understand that I have the greatest respect for you–in fact, I went down to the office the other day to put in a request that [my son] be assigned to your regular kindergarten class this fall.  
Below is a link to the Supreme Court decision, and the concluding excerpt of Justice Jackson’s majority decision.  I hope you’ll get a chance to read it, for I believe it is one of the most stirringly beautiful statements about freedom and civil liberties one could ever have a chance to read.  It is not an anti-patriotic decision, but an incredibly patriotic one, honouring the priceless freedoms contained in our Bill of Rights.

Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as by evil men. Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon but at other times and places the ends have been racial or territorial security, support of a dynasty or regime, and particular plans for saving souls. As first and moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity. [319 U.S. 624, 641]   As governmental pressure toward unity becomes greater, so strife becomes more bitter as to whose unity it shall be. Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing. Ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every such effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of its pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exiles as a means to Russian unity, down to the fast failing efforts of our present totalitarian enemies. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings. There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority.

The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. 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. We can have intellectual individualism [319 U.S. 624, 642]   and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But 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 now occur to us. 19

Isn’t Robert Jackson awesome?  I think it’s a real shame that he is not better remembered, like Thurgood Marshall or Earl Warren.

Oh, and as for my son: the teacher never did reply to my email, and she has acted a little uncomfortable around me since then.  But she let him know the next day that he didn’t have to say the Pledge, and as far as I know he does not say it any longer.  Nor has he seemed to encounter any social repurcussions as a result, though I suppose that could change as he gets older.

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