Freedom to pledge allegiance … or not

Social media sites blew up recently with news out of Leon County regarding, because we have a shortage of things to disagree about, the Pledge of Allegiance.

It seems the uncle of a Leon County elementary school student was presented with a form that gives custodial adults the option of having their youngsters literally sit out each morning’s traditional recitation of the Pledge.

(CreativeOutlet.com)

(CreativeOutlet.com)

Outraged, the uncle wrote in red ink his response across the form — “This is the dumbest thing I have ever read and I am so ashamed of this” — and, of course, posted it on his Facebook page, whereupon it went classically viral.

Traditional media as far away as Detroit and St. Louis took notice, producing coverage about outraged parents and blame-shifting bureaucrats. A district spokesman said the district was following the Legislature’s newly minted direction; the state Department of Education retorted Leon’s interpretation went too far.

The whole thing was like a summer storm: furious and eye-catching, but over fast. Only days later, Leon’s media-challenged Superintendent Jackie Pons — he says he was unaware of the published waiver until a parent called him on the way to work days later — ordered a halt to the form’s distribution and had the online code of conduct revised.

If parents or uncles or otherwise guardians wanted to exercise their rights under the statute, Pons reasoned, they could write their own darn note.

And, that was pretty much that, except for the lingering suspicion expressed in an email interview with the Tallahassee Democrat by Micah Brienen — the alarmed uncle — that the statute passed by Florida’s overwhelmingly Republican, certifiably conservative Legislature, and signed by its hard-right governor, was somehow “just another example of progressive politics destroying our school system.”

The next thing you know, Brienen said, they’ll be taking Old Glory out of the classroom and stripping her off the pole in the courtyard.

Well.

What the Legislature did last spring was nothing more than codify what plenty of school districts — Pasco and Hillsborough included — already had in their policy books where for years, students who have objections to reciting the Pledge have been able to decline without it going on their permanent records.

That, and lawmakers added a codicil: If a student wants to demur, he/she must provide a written-opt out. If anything, it seems legislators toughened the provisions.

And, Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning, above all a reasonable fellow, is not sure he gets all the fuss. “It’s not a big deal for us,” he says. Pasco’s longstanding policy notwithstanding, there have been few reported episodes of students sitting out the Pledge.

The addition of a written excuse “might mean a little more work for school board staff,” Browning says, “but I haven’t heard any news” about students exercising their stand-down option.

So, is the fuss all tempests and teapots? For Browning, rising and reciting the Pledge at the start of each school morning represents a cherished ritual, one of those things that help set the tone for learning in the land of liberty.

“We stand, we pledge the flag,” he says. “It’s who we are as Americans.”

That said, Browning makes abundantly clear his administration’s determination to defend students who find the pledge offensive, whatever their reasons.

And, that brings us back around to the idea that letting students off the hook is somehow introducing the Kremlin to our public schools. Wrong.

Giving students the option to pledge, far from being the work of subversives, is, in fact, a blow for liberty. Yes, we live in a splendid country, the best in history and still the most alluring on the planet. It passes the fence test — put a fence around a country; open the gate and see which way people go — every time.

But, the reason for the United States’ exceptional status has nothing to do with its grand vistas, abundant natural resources and favorable location on the map, and everything to do with the fact that it was, as the great man said, “conceived in liberty.”

And, if liberty means anything, it means this: Under certain circumstances, you cannot be forced to say things contrary to your faith or philosophy or even your mood, if it comes to that. Finding yourself in a taxpayer-sponsored classroom on the orders of the government — up to a certain age, school attendance is compulsory — qualifies as one of those exemptible circumstances.

In truth, obliging anyone, anywhere, anytime, to pledge to the Pledge is a persistent source of tension. The very notion of liberty sternly implies an opt-out clause.

Of course, it’s counterintuitive. Celebrate self-determination and in the next breath reject a vow of loyalty to the country that stands ever-poised to defend liberty with blood and treasure? Yes, this strikes me as freeloading on freedom, too, but we have to take the noble with its consequences.

Therefore, fans of freedom should not recoil, horror struck, when private citizens, even students, reject the taking of a loyalty oath. Allegiance coerced is allegiance unworthy.

And, a pledge recited against one’s will isn’t worth the breath expelled to utter it.

Tom Jackson, a resident of New Tampa, is interested in your ideas. To reach him, email .

Published August 31, 2016

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