Disobedience to Top-Down Authority

June 14, 2009

On this day in 1943, the US Supreme Court clearly invalidated compulsory flag salutes and the Pledge of Allegiance for public schoolchildren. This case was brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe it is blasphemous to worship, serve or pledge allegiance to any secular image because it interferes with undivided loyalty to God. It is ironic that for this form of basic civil disobedience, or more accurately, obedience to the needs of human autonomy free from impositions of political authority, we owe appreciation to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recently while being visited at my house by a Jehovah Witness, I thanked him for their steadfast resistance to government authority, while I also politely conveyed the idea that I refuse allegiance to religious authority as well, as interfering with my own spiritual and experiential development. This led to a very interesting, and very respectful, 20-minute conversation at my front door. Jehovah’s Witnesses also refuse military service, and during periods of conscription, such as the Viet Nam conflict, US prisons have been filled with their members. It is important to remember that with a strong belief in deeply felt principles of nonviolence, people can resist giving credence to authority while preserving their dignity and integrity, even while paying the consequences.

Let us look at the Supreme Court decision that upheld the Jehovah’s Witnesses right to refuse saluting the flag or pledging allegiance, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178, 87 L. Ed. 1628 (1943). With this decision, the Supreme Court overturned a West Virginia law that compelled public school children to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Justice ROBERT JACKSON, who later became the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials following WWII, and who came from the same rural area of western New York State where I grew up, wrote the majority opinion that the state law violated the students’ freedom of speech and freedom of religion. “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights,” the Court explained, is “to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities….” The Court emphasized that under the BILL OF RIGHTS, neither freedom of speech nor freedom of worship may be curtailed by the popular vote of a legislative assembly, unless it is through the amendment process set forth in Article V of the US Constitution, and then only with the approval of three-fourths of the states.

Justice Jackson observed that the US possesses a “government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent,” and the court ruled that “saluting the American flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance are forms of symbolic expression.” Thus, refusing to salute the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance is an acceptable form of political protest or a conscientious decision of a person of devout religious belief, protected by the First Amendment. The Court ruled: “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.”

It is interesting that the Supreme Court questioned the premise that national security (during WWII) is contingent upon national unity, and compared the mandatory flag salute regulations in the United States to similar laws promulgated in Nazi Germany. Though the government may instruct children on the value of patriotism, it must not become a partisan of any religion, class, or faction. The Court stressed that public schools must not “strangle the free mind at its source, and teach youth to discount important principles of government as mere platitudes.”

If only such thinking, and honorable behavior, were as well developed today. Many post-WWII political events made mincemeat out of these reasonable principles as the McCarthy era and Cold War rendered virtually meaningless protection of the law and Constitution. The events of 9/11 remind us once again that the state will not allow any effective freedom of speech, and will not protect all from unreasonable search and seizure or from cruel and unusual punishment.

It is true that laws are merely words written on pieces of paper that generally serve more for pretense than for serious adherence. Power will write, then use the laws to its advantage, usually to preserve financial profit, ego protection, and power projection. Thus, again, civil disobedience is indispensable for preserving the autonomy of humans over states, while we create a new horizontal society from below in federations of thousands of regionally reliant communities.

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