More than 300 years ago, colonial-era religious freedom pioneer and clergyman Roger Williams trenchantly observed, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”
I’d say the same thing about forced patriotism. And if you don’t believe in God, you’re free to think it stinks in nostrils generally – because it does.
Prayer can’t be forced, and neither can love of country. You either genuinely feel these things or you don’t. They can’t be turned on and off like a light switch at someone else’s command.
Yet many people keep trying. Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down an important ruling reminding all of us of the folly of forcing anyone to violate their fundamental right of conscience. The case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, concerned a Jehovah’s Witness family whose kids declined on religious grounds to participate in a mandatory public school ritual of saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. For their recalcitrance, Gathie and Marie Barnett -- their last name was missppelled in court documents -- were expelled from school.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in pledging allegiance only to God, not to an object like a flag. (They didn’t object to the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance because those words weren’t part of the Pledge at the time the case was filed; they were added in 1954.)
The Supreme Court had considered an identical case from Pennsylvania in 1940 and in Minersville School District v. Gobitis ruled in favor of mandatory flag salutes. The court seemed to realize it had made a mistake when a wave of Witness students were expelled from public schools and several adult Witnesses were assaulted. Some personnel changes had occurred on the court as well, and just three years later, the justices took up the issue again.
This time, the ruling went the other way: The high court declared that students who objected on the grounds of conscience could not be compelled to salute the flag and say the Pledge.
As Justice Robert H. Jackson eloquently put it in an oft-quoted passage: “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.”
My colleague Liz Hayes has an interesting story about the Gobitis and Barnette cases in the June issue of Church & State. I highly recommend it. I also recommend that you keep this in mind: Even though the Barnette case is celebrating 75 years, the issue is by no means dead. Americans United’s attorneys still receive sporadic complaints about students being pressured to say the Pledge in public schools. It’s not a ton, but even one is too many. (These days, many of the youngsters who decline to take part in the Pledge aren't Jehovah's Witnesses. They may be atheists who object to the Pledge's religious content, or they're sitting out to protest racial injustice.)
The issue of forced patriotism has also surfaced in other contexts recently. For example, professional football players are being told they must stand for the National Anthem or stay off the field.
Just to be clear: Pro football players are not school students, the NFL isn’t the same as public schools and the National Anthem is not the Pledge of Allegiance. Different rules are in force. The Barnette decision doesn’t apply to the NFL, so the league’s owners may be able to legally compel players to take part in patriotic rituals or stay sequestered in the locker room until they’re over.
The question is, why would they want to?