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By GENE POLICINSKI
First Amendment Center
The Pledge of Allegiance is a simple and clear way of expressing love of country.
It’s also a voluntary patriotic exercise — declared as such more than 50 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still, some officials or legislatures periodically try to coerce others into reciting the Pledge. A recent attempt involves a Mississippi judge who jailed a lawyer who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance last October at the start of a court session.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled unanimously recently that Tupelo, Miss., Chancery Court Judge Talmadge Littlejohn improperly found lawyer Danny Lampley in contempt of court. Littlejohn was reprimanded and fined $100.
The Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892 by ex-minister Francis Bellamy, first appeared in a national magazine, The Youth’s Companion.
The original wording later was modified to specify the U.S. flag. And, in 1954, at the urging of President Dwight Eisenhower and the Knights of Columbus religious group, Congress added the words “under God.”
Two hallmark Supreme Court cases define the battle over whether any “salute to the flag” should be mandated or voluntary.
In the mid-1930s, Pennsylvania public schoolchildren Lillian and William Gobitis were expelled for refusing to salute the flag and recite the pledge as part of daily school routine.
The family argued that as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the children owed allegiance only to God and that requiring the salute and Pledge recitation violated their religious beliefs.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1940 that the school district’s interest in creating national unity substantiated the right of officials to require students to salute the flag.
The state’s interest in “national cohesion” was superior to concerns over religious liberty, the court held: “National unity is the basis of national security.”
Widespread and alarming violence followed quickly against Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who still refused to salute the flag or say the Pledge.
After several years an appalled Court appears to have sought out a case by which it could reverse the 1940 decision.
In 1943, in Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court did just that. Justice Robert Jackson wrote in stirring prose, “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.”
Jackson also wrote that mandating recitation “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.”
Gene Policinski is vice president of the First Amendment Center. The First Amendment Center is housed in the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.