Pledges and tolerance

June 10, 1998|By Gordon Livingston

FOR several years after returning from Vietnam in 1969, I declined to stand during the singing of the national anthem. I could not reconcile what I had seen in the war as anything that I could support or that represented the values that had always (and still do) make me proud to be an American citizen. Remaining seated was a silent protest against a misbegotten war in which Americans were killing and dying for no purpose. I felt I was being patriotic in the best sense of the word, exercising my freedom of expression in a way that did not interfere with the rights of my fellow citizens who saw things differently.

Except for the occasional heckler, I was left alone. When American involvement in the war ended in 1973, I stopped embarrassing my children and stood up during the anthem, though, to this day, it still seems to me an unnecessary and slightly ridiculous reminder that a sports contest is being played in the United States.

A matter of conscience

Recently, I read about a high school sophomore, MaryKait Durkee, living near San Diego who objects to being required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school. "Until a few months ago," she says, "I stood and faced the flag with my hand over my heart and mechanically said the pledge . . . But I thought about what the pledge actually meant, and I disagreed with its message." MaryKait doesn't believe in God, thinks the government is corrupt and that our society is too violent so she declines to participate in this show of public respect.

She has her parents' backing in her refusal, but still she was ordered by her teacher to stand in front of the class and recite the pledge by herself. When she refused, she was sent to the office, "subjected to ridicule" by her classmates and given four hours' detention. She now stands for the pledge to avoid trouble, but she has gained an ally in the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a federal lawsuit alleging infringement of her constitutional right to free speech or, more accurately, freedom from coerced speech.

Religious amendment

Ironically, the story about MaryKait broke about the same time the U.S. House of Representatives had begun considering the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment to the Constitution, which would sanction organized prayer in public schools, allow public funds to be used for religious institutions, protect religious expressions such as crosses and nativity scenes in public places and allow the display of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms.

My guess is that MaryKait Durkee and the ACLU won't like this forced injection of religion into our public life anymore than they like coerced affirmations of patriotism. Perhaps we could convey a little more security in our sense of ourselves as God-fearing patriots if we didn't force children to say things they do not believe or if we ourselves showed more tolerance and less need for rote repetition of who we are and where we live.

Gordon Livingston, a child psychiatrist, writes from Columbia.

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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