A few thoughts on Flag Day

Today’s the anniversary of one of my favorite cases, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which deals with saluting the flag.

I remember, as a kid, when someone told us it meant you didn’t HAVE to salute. As a rebellious kid, I saw it as another way to push back against authority.

But one day a long time ago, I read it.

It was in 1943, when Justice Jackson penned this opinion recognizing the right to refuse to salute the flag.

Here’s how the opinion ends:

“The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure, but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. 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.

We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power, and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”


The opinion can be found here and the entire thing is worth reading: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/319/624

It’s important to remember that our flag is a symbol of freedoms we cherish, but it’s not the cause. While we have lots to work on as a society, we got that “fixed constellation” right and it’s good to remember it.

Do we sometimes fall short on our ideals?  Absolutely.  But to paraphrase Ken White (@popehat): I Pledge, Despite.

Happy Flag Day.

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