- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 26, 2000

MaryKait Durkee is a 15-year-old high school sophomore who says she cannot in good conscience recite the Pledge of Allegiance. She offers two explanations. The first is that she is an atheist, so she does not want to attest that we are a nation “under God.” The second is that she thinks, contrary to the phrase about “liberty and justice for all,” our courts don't offer justice for all, since poor people do worse than people with money.

Officials at her public school, confronted with this troublemaker, have furnished Durkee with yet another reason for abstaining from the pledge: That stuff about liberty is nonsense, too.

Durkee attends Fallbrook Union High School in Fallbrook, Calif., midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. On April 1, 1998, she informed her world history teacher that she would sit silently at her desk while the class recited the pledge. After her classmates had gone through the daily ritual without her, Durkee's teacher told her to go to the front of the room and utter the formula alone, which she refused to do.

For the next three weeks, she sat quietly during the ceremony. Then, she got a letter ordering her to report for detention, her punishment for declining to participate. Administrators also told her that henceforth, she would have to stand or leave the room during the pledge. Durkee went to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued on her behalf. At that point, school officials said that they would let the girl sit for the rest of the school year but that they intend to make her stand when classes resume in the fall.

They apparently don't see the irony of compelling someone to sing the praises of liberty. Nor do they grasp the pointlessness of making someone avow religious beliefs and political loyalties she doesn't actually feel.

The point of the pledge is to cultivate love of country and an appreciation of the ideals it stands for. All the school is cultivating in MaryKait Durkee is an added sense of the gulf between America's principles and practices.

Officials also have not bothered to place themselves on firm legal ground in spurning her request. The issue in dispute was settled definitively by the Supreme Court in 1943, when schoolchildren who were Jehovah's Witnesses, defying a state requirement, refused to recite the pledge because they thought it violated the Second Commandment's ban on the worship of graven images. The court ruled in favor of the children.

“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds,” said Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority. “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.”

If the Supreme Court was not prepared to let government officials require public affirmations of loyalty during World War II, when American soldiers were dying on foreign shores to stop dangerous enemies, it's not about to condone the practice now. Nor is it likely to agree that Durkee can be forced even to stand during the ceremony, since standing suggests respect.

In the years since that ruling, the court has only reaffirmed its belief that freedom of speech includes the right not to associate oneself with words one doesn't believe. It has also decreed that public school students may not be punished for expressing their religious or political views in a peaceful, non-disruptive way.

So the school district is sure to lose if the case goes to court. In addition, under federal law, it may find itself forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars to cover Durkee's legal fees — not a sound use of education funds.

Durkee has been reviled as spoiled and unpatriotic, but her actions refute the charges. Not many 15-year-olds would have the courage to invite ridicule from their classmates and society at large by standing up for their political convictions. She could have gone along, dismissing the pledge as an empty formality, or she could have mouthed the words silently to avoid trouble. Instead, she paid this country the tribute of acting as though its declared principles and civic rituals actually matter.

Durkee's stubborn dedication to an unpopular cause, heedless of the cost, is not un-American; it's quintessentially American. Her opponents are the ones undermining the ideals they claim to defend. If they insist she has no place in America, she can answer, with the 17th century British parliamentarian Algernon Sidney, “Where liberty is, there is my country.”


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