Monday, May 26, 2008

The Pledge Project: The Case of David Habecker

As a clear example of the Pledge of Allegiance (with 'under God') being used to bar atheist from elected positions and positions of public trust, we have the case of David Habecker.

Habecker was a trustee for the city of Estes Park, Colorado, who was removed from office for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. He was elected to his position. Then the Mayor announced a new policy of opening each session with the Pledge of Allegiance. At first, Habecker (an atheist) went along with this. However, his conscience got the better of him, and he quit joining this ritual. As a result, the people of Estes Park held a special election (paying tax money to do so) to remove Habecker from public office.

I could not write up the details any better than they appear in the ruling of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals for case of David Habecker vs. the Town of Estes Park.

Habecker was elected in 2000 to fill the seat of a deceased Trustee of the Town Board and was reelected to a full four-year term in 2002. As a Trustee, Habecker voted on routine matters such as budgets, appropriations, and hiring and firing of the Town Manager and Town Attorney. The Board consists of six Trustees and the Mayor of Estes Park, who sits as an ex officio member with a tiebreaking vote. Formal Board meetings are held twice a month and are open to the public.

Events giving rise to this litigation commenced on May 11, 2004, at the Estes Park Board meeting, when Mayor John Baudeck announced a new “policy” of opening meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and asked that all present stand and recite the Pledge. Mayor Baudeck led the Pledge at the beginning of each Board meeting thereafter, and was continuing to do so at the time this litigation began.

Habecker joined in standing and reciting the Pledge at the May 11 meeting and several meetings thereafter, but declined to say the words “under God.” By September, according to his deposition testimony, Habecker felt hypocritical reciting even this redacted version of the Pledge, considering that others were unlikely to see that he was omitting the words “under God.” Thus, at the September 14, 2004, Board meeting, Habecker sat silently during the recitation of the Pledge. He explained at the meeting that he did so because of his objection to the use of the words “under God.” Habecker continued to sit silently through the Pledge for the remainder of his service as a Trustee.

Upon learning of Habecker’s refusal to recite the Pledge, three citizens of Estes Park, Dewey Shanks, Norman Pritchard, and Richard Clark formed a committee to recall Habecker from office. Pursuant to Colo. Rev. Stat. § 31-4- 501 et seq. the Colorado recall statute, the group collected signatures and filed a petition for Habecker’s recall with the Town Clerk, Vickie O’Connor. As required by § 31-4-502(1)(a)(I), the petition included a statement of grounds for the recall, which read:

Electors suffer a loss of confidence in Mr. Habecker’s ability to represent citizen’s [sic] pride, patriotism, and common decency. Prior to Town Board of Trustees meetings, he purposefully and irreverently chooses to publicly sit, facing away from the flag of the United States, during recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. His defiant behavior occurs because the phrase “. . . under God . . .” offends him. He states he intends to continue until the United States Congress strikes the phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Habecker failed to reveal this violation of his principles during campaigns for election. We consider this omission a deliberate tactic to assure voter ballots towards his election. We consider this tactic unethical and unacceptable.

We respect Mr. Habecker’s right to free speech under the Constitution of the United States, but insist on maintenance of responsibility, accountability, leadership, respect for others, and high standards of public conduct. His vital beliefs regarding church/state personal conflicts were not revealed at the critical time of election.

We do not regard these actions, omissions or motivations honorable [sic], and demand his removal from his elected position. . . .

By a vote of 903 in favor of recall to 605 against, Habecker was recalled as a Trustee. Habecker claims that his stance on the Pledge was the predominant reason for his electoral defeat.

If the Pledge of Allegiance can be used to get an elected official removed from public office, it is not a stretch at all to argue that it is being used to keep atheists and secularists – at least honest atheists and secularists – from getting elected in the first place.

Those who say that the Pledge of Allegiance is not important (that it is just words, that it represents ‘ceremonial deism, and nobody pays attention to it), needs to square their thesis with the fact that a group of citizens were motivated to remove Habecker from office – without even waiting for the next election – for refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance. It motivated them to research the rules for a recall, circulate their petition, get the signatures they needed, sign the petition in sufficient numbers, and vote to recall Habecker in sufficient numbers to remove him from office.

This hardly seems consistent with the thesis that 'under God' is of no political significance.

1 comment:

David Habecker said...

Appreciate your effort. For the last 18 months I have attended every meeting of the Estes Park town board to sit through the Pledge and then read a prepared statement. I find that I can talk about the non-existance of god all I want because they introduced god w the Pledge. But they can't say a word in god's defence.
David Habecker