Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Pledge Project: Three Related News Stories

We are now between 1 and 30 days away from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on 'under God' and 'In God We Trust'. Today, I am looking at three stories related to the Pledge Project.

The goal of the Pledge Project is to introduce moral arguments into discussing issues like the Pledge of Allegiance in addition to the legal arguments that (at least on the part of secularists) have been about the only arguments used to date.

Story #1: Philidelphia vs. the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts have been leasing land from the city of Philadelphia at a rate of $1 per year for a building that they constructed. However, because of the Boy Scouts' discriminatory policies towards homosexuals and atheists, in 2003 Philadelpha's mayor, John Street, decided that the Boy Scouts can no longer use public lands unless it agrees not to discriminate. The Boy Scouts could continue to use the property, but only at a market rate for the rent (about $200,000 per year).

The Scouts have filed a lawsuit in federal court that the city's decision violates their Constitutional right to freedom of assembly.

The issue of discrimination is a moral issue, but it is vague and ill-formed. For example, the Boy Scouts do not only discriminate against homosexuals and atheists. It discriminates against girls. Yet, there seems to be little complaint about this discrimination. If discrimination against girls is permissible, then it seems there is little reason to complain about discrimination against homosexuals and atheists. If discrimination against homosexuals and atheists is a problem, then those who speak about discrimination need to explain why discrimination against girls is not an issue.

The moral issue that I have not seen raised in this debate – that very much deserves to be raised – is the fact that the Boy Scouts teach children that atheists are incapable of being the best sort of citizen. I wrote about this aspect of the Scouts earlier in the post, "The Pledge Project: House Resolution 5872”. This Resolution involves raising up to $3.5 million for the Boy Scouts with a commemorative coin.

The objection then, and the objection in Philadelphia, is that the government support of the Boy Scouts is similar to the Government putting up billboards – or organizing classes – to teach children that "atheists are incapable of the best form of citizenship.” Since atheists are peaceful and law-abiding citizens (and taxpayers) with no history of violence against the government, the government has no right to be involved in a campaign that atheists are incapable of the best type of citizenship.

This goes beyond the simple claim that "the Boy Scouts do not allow atheists to become members.” We are now talking about, "The government is participating in a program to teach children that peaceful and law-abiding neighbors are incapable of the best form of citizenship.” It is one thing for an organization like the Boy Scouts to exclude people as members.

The Boy Scouts can exclude girls, for example, without declaring that women are "incapable of the best type of citizenship”. If the Boy Scouts were to violate this principle – if the Boy Scouts were to include among its messages that women are morally or psychologically required to stay home and make babies – we can be assured that they would get no government support in spreading its message.

I would like to see this moral argument included in the debate on this issue. However, I have not seen this argument yet.

Story 2: New Zoning Board Member Refuses to Say the Pledge

Newly appointed Zoning Board of Adjustment member Robert Field Jr. sat during the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting. Field said he did so because he doesn't feel reciting the pledge is appropriate for the ZBA, which sits in judgment of other people's business, as in a courtroom.

Field does not object to the Pledge of Allegiance. He says it at Rotory Club meetings. He does not want to say the Pledge when serving on the Zoning Board because of the trial-like nature of its business. He does not want to give those who come to the Court an appearance of bias.

The merits of his argument against the Pledge in his zoning board meetings is not relevant to this post. The relevant fact is that his refusal to say the Pledge is news, and some consider it good enough reason to object to Field holding his position.

Reading the news, we see another instance in which the argument in favor of saying the pledge is that it shows respect for those people who fought for our freedoms (where failing to do so in an insult to them). The argument against saying the pledge is that those who refuse to do so have a right to freedom of speech – a right to the freedom to refuse.

Effectively, the argument is that Field has a right to insult America and those who fought for our freedoms if he wants to.

When [Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth was] told of Field's refusal to participate in the pledge, Pantelakos was incensed. "I'm very upset that anyone would not want to do the pledge. If you live in this country you should do the pledge."

Nobody, as far as I can tell, has pointed out to Representative Pantelakos (who, I want to point out, is a Democrat) that this is the same as saying, "If you live in this country, you should believe in God,” or, "If you do not believe in God, you should not live in this country.”

Until we insert some moral arguments into this debate, the debate in the eyes of the public will be built on the assumption that anybody who refuses to say the Pledge seeks to dishonor those who fought for our freedom and stands against American values. Until we insert some moral arguments people will continue to believe that the dominant issue regarding the Pledge is whether everybody should show respect for the flag, the country, and those who served this country. Or whether some people have a right to disrespect the flag, the country, and those who fought for our freedoms.

Story 3: Beloit Wisconsin city councilor refuses to recite the Pledge.

Rookie Beloit city councilor Sheila De Forest stands mute with her hands clasped in front of her while her colleagues recite the Pledge of Allegiance for each council meeting. Adding fuel to the fire, she responded when asked by the Daily News to explain her, well, inactions: "There are some things I am certainly willing to pledge my allegiance and life to. A piece of fabric is not one of them.”

This case has generated comments such as the following:

. . . if [de Forest] has no allegiance to this country, then which one is she allied with? Doesn't matter, I won't be voting for her again. Mark Blakeman

Ms. De Forest has alienated virtually every veteran who proudly fought for our country and that same flag. . . . The proper thing for her to do is resign immediately, and if not, the council should investigate means to remove her from office. Darryl Peach

Here, as in the other cases, the debate is being carried out among the same terms. The claim is that those who do not say the Pledge insult anybody who has fought for the country, while the defense for those who do not say the Pledge amounts to, "People have a right to insult those who do not serve the country if they want to.”

Yes, they do have a right. But the unquestioned assumption in this case, as with the others, that a person who does not say the Pledge is insulting America, has no loyalty to America, and is insulting anybody who has fought for the country needs to start being questioned. Otherwise, we have a situation where no person can get elected (or can expect to hold onto their seat if they are elected) unless they are willing to support 'one nation under God'.

In other words, the Pledge becomes a virtually insurmountable barrier between secularists and atheists on the one side, and elected office and positions of public trust on the other.


Robert C. said...

I have been an avid reader of your blog for a long time, though I haven't posted many comments. Checking your latest essay is usually the first thing I do when I fire up the computer in the morning.

Have you thought about publishing your Pledge Project articles as a book? It would be another good way to reach a wider audience.

Keep up the good work


Alonzo Fyfe said...

robert c.

Thank you.

I have been thinking about adding these essays (or some of them) to the Perspectice on the Pledge book that you see mentioned up there on the right.

That's a decision that I'll make in July.

Anonymous said...

At issue with Sheila De Forest is not a question of Atheism for she has offered no such reasoning in explanation. What she has stated is unwillingness to "pledge allegiance to a piece of fabric." Therein the difference.

I do wish she had been more clear in her statements and regrettably has reversed her decision subsequent. A move which will cause even greater difficulty down the road.

It is my opinion that she has not been candid with the people and may not be exercising intellectual honesty with herself.

Less surprising had she rolled out the classic "under god" excuse but she didn't. Leastwise that is not what she said.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Robert Field's case is also not about atheism. Field's claim was that he did not think that a court-like body should give an appearance of bias. Field has made it clear that he has nothing against the Pledge as written, and freely recites it in other cases.

The intended point here was not about atheism in specific, but about the requirement to say the Pledge in order to keep or hold public office (thus, effectively, barring honest atheists from public office). Though these two individuals had different reasons for their position, they were both put under threat of losing their office because they did not say the Pledge