In 1950, Republican senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the first member of Congress to publicly confront Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges that those who disagreed with his version of patriotism were—as Attorney General John Ashcroft now says of his critics—giving “ammunition to America’s enemies.”
At the time, Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in the Senate. She led six other senators in presenting a Declaration of Conscience to the rest of her colleagues—urging them to protect individual liberties from the likes of McCarthy. It took four more years for the Senate to censure Joe McCarthy.
What Senator Smith said on that day ought to be studied not only by the president and the attorney general of the United States but also by certain editorial writers at the New York Daily News and the New York Post who have attacked members of Community School District 3 for defying the Board of Education’s edict that the Pledge of Allegiance must be recited daily in every classroom in our public schools.
“Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism,” Margaret Chase Smith said, “are all too frequently those who . . . ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism—the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, the right of independent thought.”
Are there any teachers in this city’s school system who would dare defy John Ashcroft and tell their students about Margaret Chase Smith and her Declaration of Conscience, and how it applies to what’s going on now?
The enforcers of patriotism on school boards throughout the country have been commanding that the Pledge of Allegiance be intoned every day. In some cities and towns, as in New York, students are actually informed that they can refuse to stand and pledge as an act of conscience—by order of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1943 (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette).
But a student who remains seated or is sent to the principal’s office so as not to disturb the ritual is often treated as a pariah by his or her fellow students. For one of many examples, a brave young woman in a California high school was pursued down the corridors repeatedly by enraged student patriots of whom John Ashcroft would be proud. Other dissenters, defended by the ACLU, have had to go to the courts, which have reprimanded boards of education and principals for ignoring the rudiments of the First Amendment.
In this city, editorial writers at the Daily News and the New York Post have directed their fire, with particular outrage, at Larry Sauer, a District 3 school board member who made the motion to have each of the schools in the district decide how to deal with the Pledge of Allegiance rather than mandating them all to fall in line.
Said Sauer: “Requiring students to blindly repeat the pledge is no different than the Taliban requiring children to memorize the Koran and repeat it by rote, without understanding why or what they are saying.”
A more cogent analogy would have been to one of our current allies in the war on terrorism—the People’s Republic of China, which holds the current world record for jailing political prisoners of conscience.
The New York Post, noting that District 3 covers the Upper West Side, characteristically added that this section of the city was “once termed, for good reason, ‘Moscow-on-the-Hudson.’ Condemning America is par for the course in much of that left-wing loony bin.” In its invincible ignorance, the Post does not realize that in this comment it is jubilantly engaging in McCarthyism.
And the Daily News charged that District 3 “is afraid that patriotism may not be suitable for children. That sound you hear is Osama bin Laden laughing.”
Years ago in the Voice, I pledged that once every year I would print part of the clearest and most fundamental definition of Americanism in our history so far—Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson’s majority opinion in the aforementioned West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. I failed to keep my word. However, I can’t think of a better time to recall this testament of why we are Americans.
Because saluting the flag violated their religious beliefs, the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to participate in the mandatory Pledge of Allegiance in the West Virginia public schools. They were expelled and then threatened, as Justice Jackson noted, with being “sent to reformatories maintained for criminally inclined juveniles. In West Virginia, parents of such children have been prosecuted . . . for causing delinquency.”
To a Jehovah’s Witness, saluting the flag is bowing down to a “graven image,” which is forbidden in Exodus 20:4-5.
In his decision, Jackson, while affirming the free-exercise-of-religion clause of the First Amendment, emphasized the corollary rights of freedom of conscience and belief for all Americans, religious or not:
“That [boards of education] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes. . . .
“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.” Jackson’s opinion then thundered:
“If there is any fixed star in our 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.” (Emphasis added.)
He concluded: “We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”
The Jehovah’s Witness children returned to school and did not have to stand and pledge to the flag. This Supreme Court decision was handed down during our war against Hitler.
John Ashcroft scorns his critics for scaring Americans “with phantoms of lost liberty.” What scares us is his and the president’s dangerous ignorance of the essence of Americanism.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 1, 2002