Standing Up for the Right to Sit Down

I have been heartened to read of a grade-school student who actually reads and understands the Pledge of Allegiance.  There is a young man who doesn’t want to pledge to a republic that is denying the “liberty and justice for all” phrase by prohibiting gay marriage.  The school is having a harder time understanding the meanings of “liberty” and how pledge coercion contradicts that.  Will Smith has it figured out, though and is holding on even under peer pressure.  It’s a good stand from a good kid.

He does it because he understands that the country he is supposed to pledge allegiance to is lying about its drive for liberty.  If there are laws and constitutional amendments setting aside a certain class of people for exclusions from their own freedom to be who they are, how they are and with whom they want to be, he can’t see the sense in being forced to recite the pledge.  He is being a responsible American, true to his beliefs.

Will’s family has a number of gay friends. In recent years, Laura Phillips said, they’ve been trying to be a straight ally to the gay community, going to the pride parades and standing up for the rights of their gay and lesbian neighbors. They’ve been especially dismayed by the effort to take away the rights of homosexuals – the right to marry, and the right to adopt. Given that, Will immediately saw a problem with the pledge of allegiance.

“I’ve always tried to analyze things because I want to be lawyer,” Will said. “I really don’t feel that there’s currently liberty and justice for all.”

I also read the story about a high school student who has been punished by her school for not standing during the pledge, because she believes that the phrase added in 1954 “under God” excludes her.  She is an atheist.  She has the ACLU assisting her, and the official word from the school is that the issue has been “dealt with.”  It’s a “situation” that shouldn’t even be necessary, because Ohio recognizes the right of a student to not stand up and say the pledge.

Seventeen-year-old Roxanne Westover says she’s an atheist and considers the pledge more religious than patriotic. Because she wouldn’t participate, she says she was sent to the Hubbard High School principal’s office several times.

The ACLU wrote school district officials Tuesday arguing that students have the right not to say the pledge as a matter of free speech.

Hubbard Superintendent Richard Buchenic says he told the ACLU that the matter has been “dealt with.”

The matter hasn’t been dealt with, and not by a long shot.  When the pledge is corrected, and when as Americans we are finally proud to say that we are back on track towards “liberty and justice for all”?  Maybe, and also maybe when the coins are corrected to not say “In God We Trust” on them, or maybe when cities like San Clemente, California don’t use these passive-aggressive ways to fund a blurring of the Separation of Church and State. Maybe then we can start standing up for a pledge.

I am the Affirmative Action Officer for the DFL in Senate District 51, which is on the north side of the metro.  We are mostly Blaine, Mounds View, Fridley, Spring Lake Park.  The district nominating convention in 2008 was my first one here since I moved from the East Side of St. Paul in 2006.  I was not yet an officer at that time but was about to be selected one during the program.  I wasn’t prescient, but no one else had expressed interest in the position and so it was to be an acceptance of of the slate by acclimation.  People congratulated me on my victory, and I could only say “It wasn’t much of a contest, but thank you SO much!”

While preparing the Spring Lake Park High School gymnasium for the convention, the chair of SD51 came up to me, because he knows I am an atheist, and told me that he had arranged for a non-denominational “Prayer for Peace” to start the event.  My back was up for a second on this, but I couldn’t demand that it be removed from the program. I was at that time very new in the district and aware that this was an area of the suburbs of the Twin Cities where church attendance was an important part of the social fabric.  I have been asked casually by more people here what church I go to than I had been asked the same question on the East Side of St. Paul.

So, where was I at the time?  I was a new officer, not even on the executive committee as of yet (the acclimation would come later the next day). I had told people I was an atheist when the topic had come up and that I was the host of a radio show.  I didn’t object openly because it was a rather last-minute notification and was very non-specific, and I didn’t think that I had the influence yet to be able to make a change at that late moment.  While I thought that it was unfair to spring this on me for an objection after the programs were printed, I said, “Thanks for checking with me on it, and it is a nice prayer.”

When this portion of the program for the convention started, I ducked out to the hall.  I didn’t want to hear a bunch of people praying at a secular event, because there seems to be such a tin ear to the protests of secular people.  There is this category error that creeps in whenever I approach the subject of why there should be events where only nonreligious business is discussed.  The assumption is that we are “offended” by religion and prayer, and while some atheist don’t like prayer, most of us are not offended that people pray.  We know that it is taught to people as a way to express spiritual leanings and meditations and to make themselves feel closer to their religion.  We know that people are submitting themselves to “God’s Will” and it is important to them to get that humility as lowly sinners needing to check their human hubris, or whatever.  We know that they believe it is important, because for many of them it is what they are taught from the time they learn to speak.

What we are trying to point out is that the issue is not one of offense, the issue is one of divisiveness.  The reason that the founders did this whole thing with the Bill of Rights was not a matter of whether they were Christian, Deist, Musselman, Jewish or whatever.  It was that they were all of those things, and atheist too.  They recognized that the entwining of religion and policymaking would give too much power to the predominant religion at the expense of the other ones, and that the other ones would not be able to fully participate in a government which either doesn’t recognize them or ignores them completely.  They knew that keeping religion out of the laws was necessary for full participation in politics for all of the white landowners who spoke English at the time.  We can’t be too exclusive at once.

Since that convention, I have wondered whether I did the right thing by not raising an objection.  Our executive committee had a follow-up event, a pizza and beer bull session in Blaine and one of the topics was on the prayer at the convention.  I brought it up, because we were discussing what we wanted to do with Affirmative Action.  Jeremy Powers, who reminds me every time I bring up this issue that he is an agnostic who is as close to one can get to being an atheist (I am, too, but that’s another topic).  He explained that he was getting angry that the Republican Party is hijacking religion, and so he thinks the Democrats need to step it up on the God issue so that people don’t think that the Republicans “own God.”  The Secretary of the Committee, a very nice and active woman in her church said “I thought that the prayer was very nice.”  Several people commented in assent, that yes, yes, it was “nice.”

I had to break in to make the point: “Why, if you are angry about something that the Republicans do, do you want to try to copy them?”

Listen, I know the issue on this.  The Right have hijacked the meme that in order to be properly Christian one needs to be a Republican, partly because the Republicans value symbolism and sloganism over substance.  The Cross is a ready-made companion for the Flag, because as hard as we have tried we can’t get societies to separate themselves from the idea that a government is God-ordained and must be blessed in order to be effective.

I knew that I had done the wrong thing for our convention when the organizers of the 2008 National Democratic Nominating Convention made a huge deal of opening with a “faith ceremony.”  When the secularists protested, when the atheists protested, when the agnostics protested, when the secular Christians, Jews and Muslims protested, they were told that they could just avoid that part of the ceremony.  They were dismissed, and told they weren’t important enough to be part of the whole thing.

So, I will not let the situation at our Senate District convention pass unprotested.  We are not an official government agency, so the First Amendment doesn’t bind us to not bring religion in.  However, the DFL supports the U.S. Constitution, and that includes the establishment clause.  We need to stand up, at least for the right to sit down.

So, those kids made an issue of the Pledge of Allegiance and not an opening prayer at at convention.  Why did I open with their stories?   One objection is that the Pledge doesn’t apply to all because of the issue of gay rights to marry.  The other is that the Pledge was modified to exclude atheists.  We don’t like to be excluded, except from worship services.  For those we are okay if everyone else leaves for a while and we get to stay home and drink all the beer.

As the Affirmative Action Officer, I see it as important that in order to make people feel welcome to join and volunteer, we don’t set up a barrier for people who otherwise would be very active in the party.  This making of a “nice prayer” so that people can feel like the convention is another extension of church is not a reasonable justification for us to spite another set of people.  It becomes a delicate balance if religious people think that they are not welcome in the party, so I really need to be careful how to do this.  I want everyone except Republicans to be Democrats.  And I will take lapsed Republicans if they are truly repentant.

I have decided to volunteer for the program and arrangements committee, on which I will actually have a voice on this.  I will make my strong opinion known, and if people stare at me blankly and say, “But the prayer was so nice,” and vote to keep it over my objections, I’ll be angry but will not quit the party.  I’ll sit during the Pledge for sure. We have to start somewhere.  I am planing on not running for Affirmative Action Officer for the 2010-2011 term anyway. I think they need someone more effective at it.  I have other plans. There’s this big Atheist group in Minnesota that will need a President in 2011.

If the kids can take a stand, so can I.

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