To err is human; to blunder is inexcusable

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By Jim Flynn

A federal appeals court decision concerning a Palm Beach County student’s refusal to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in school irks some well-meaning citizens and seems to befuddle school boards and administrators.

We assume the interesting history of the Pledge is being taught in our public schools. The Pledge was composed by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist minister. It was recited for the first time in schools on Columbus Day 1892.

Bellamy’s original words were few and to the point: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Perfect!

There are always those who believe they can make perfect a little better. In the 1920s the Daughters of the American Revolution and American Legion led a campaign to change “my Flag” to “the Flag of the United States.” More words; same meaning. Bellamy objected, but the johnny-come-lately flag wavers were determined to have it their way.

A year later nit-pickers at the National Flag Conference discovered another improvement and added “of America” after “United States.”

In the 1950s the Knights of Columbus began a campaign to make better even more better by adding God to the Pledge. The movement was aided by the Rev. Dr. George Docherty, a Presbyterian pastor at the church attended by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. So in 1954 Congress added “under God.”

There are still dedicated groups who think the Pledge needs improvements.

Anti-abortionists would end the Pledge with justice for all, “born and unborn.” Liberals would add “equality” to “liberty and justice for all.”

Reverend Bellamy deliberately designed the Pledge to be recited in just 15 seconds. With obsessed meddlers on the loose, recitation of the Pledge may soon take up the whole first period of every school day.

That short history is appropriate background to the muddling going on among Marion County school officials over standing for recitation of the Pledge.

In 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be compelled to stand and recite the Pledge because “compulsory unification of opinion” violates the First Amendment. Freedom of speech includes freedom to be silent.

The Florida statute requiring standing recitation of the pledge in public schools was enacted in 1942. The statute provides that a student may be excused from the pledge requirement on written request of a parent.

In the Palm Beach case a student refused to stand just because he didn’t want to. He was berated by his teacher in front of classmates. The student’s mother sued the school district because of the teacher’s verbal abuse of her son.

The Appeals Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Florida statute. That was not the issue. The court said the right to remain seated during recitation of the Pledge has been well established in cases going back to 1970.

We think the most important words of the decision were that a student’s silent non-participation does not interfere with or deny the rights of others to stand and pledge. That’s why the Florida statute includes a right to be excused.

Our amazement at cases like Frazier v. Alexandre (Palm Beach) is the inability or unwillingness of some school boards and administrators to read and understand the plain language of a short statute and some simple case law.

The statute says local school boards may adopt rules to encourage respect for the nation and its symbols. However, as to the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance, the statute spells out exact requirements – who, what, when, where, and how. The statute leaves no room for local interpretation.

Entertaining ideas or suggestions contrary to the statute and its exception can become an ill-considered blunder into lengthy and expensive litigation during difficult financial times.

Instead of trying to adapt the statute and case law to its student code of conduct, the School Board should include the exact words of the statute and its exception in a separate paragraph. The words (just 70) require no elucidation by the School Board or administrators.

Jim Flynn was formerly a corporate counsel, served in military intelligence during the Korean War, and once aspired to be a newspaper columnist.