Proud to live in a nation that tolerates dissent

I was saddened by the un-American treatment of Haddam Selectwoman Melissa Schlag on July 30. As the Board of Selectmen engaged in a ritual pledge to the flag, Schlag chose to silently kneel in a respectful demonstration of concern. In kneeling, Schlag neither disparaged nor abandoned our country; indeed, she continues to serve in local government, one of thousands of board and commission members throughout the nation who give their time to improving their communities and their countries.

Some candidates for state office, rather than consider the motivation behind Schlag’s silent action, chose the path of inflammatory rhetoric, perhaps to distract from the lack of a meaningful message in their own campaigns. One wonders how they would react to a real crisis given their overblown response to a legitimate and patriotic protest.

In 1943, the United States was engaged in a great struggle against totalitarian states. Misguided public officials sought to compel children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Some of these children, who were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, risked the scorn of their communities and objected to being compelled to pledge allegiance. They equated the Pledge with worship of a graven image − something prohibited in their faith.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in one of their most widely admired opinions — West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette — sided with the children and upheld their constitutional right not to participate. This decision is now codified in Conn. Gen. Stat. 10-230, which notes that no person can be required to recite the Pledge. Few other words have so eloquently summed up the importance of freedom of expression in the United States as the Barnette decision:

"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. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

"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 there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."

During World War II, when the above words were written, Americans witnessed Nazi rallies full of zealous supporters. Today, when neo-Nazis march in our own country and the president dog whistles to the “very fine” white supremacists involved; when the United States ignores its own treaties and separates children from their families; and when our nation’s leader cozies up to dictators and calls the free press,“The Enemy of the People,” this sputtering indignation -- whether feigned or sincere -- over Ms. Schlag’s actions, and the attempts to chill or even suppress her respectful and silent protest, dishonor our country and the flag for which it stands.

I’m glad we have a country where brave people like Melissa Schlag can express their views and remind us of our legacy of liberty, equality and toleration.

Matthew Berger lives in the Pawcatuck section of Stonington.



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