“….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….”
In 1943, in a time of war, no less:
….To sustain the compulsory flag salute we are required to say that a Bill of Rights which guards the individual’s right to speak his own mind, left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind.
Whether the First Amendment to the Constitution will permit officials to order observance of ritual of this nature does not depend upon whether as a voluntary exercise we would think it to be good, bad or merely innocuous. Any credo of nationalism is likely to include what some disapprove or to omit what others think essential, and to give off different overtones as it takes on different accents or interpretations. If official power exists to coerce acceptance of any patriotic creed, what it shall contain cannot be decided by courts, but must be largely discretionary with the ordaining authority, whose power to prescribe would no doubt include power to amend. Hence validity of the asserted power to force an American citizen publicly to profess any statement of belief or to engage in any ceremony of assent to one presents questions of power that must be considered independently of any idea we may have as to the utility of the ceremony in question….
….Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as by evil men. Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon but at other times and places the ends have been racial or territorial security, support of a dynasty or regime, and particular plans for saving souls. As first and moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity. [319 U.S. 624, 641] As governmental pressure toward unity becomes greater, so strife becomes more bitter as to whose unity it shall be. Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing. Ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every such effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of its pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exiles as a means to Russian unity, down to the fast failing efforts of our present totalitarian enemies. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.
It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings. There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority.
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 [319 U.S. 624, 642] 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….
What a great and confident country.
Today, via social media, from the Governor of Missouri:
The flag brings real patriots to their feet, not their knees.
In the military, every one of us wore the American flag. In fact, it’s one of the only common features of all military uniforms. You could be in a different branch, have a different rank, wear different awards—but all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines wore the stars and stripes.
You didn’t just wear it every day. One of the first things they teach you in the military is how to salute. It’s a precise, practiced movement, and it is governed by a set of rules. You practice your salute over and over again until you get it right. And believe me, your drill instructors make sure you get it right. Why? Because, as we were taught, the salute is how members of the military show their respect to each other—and it is also how we pay respect to the flag.
Even today, out of uniform, my body reacts by instinct when I see the flag. Eyes front. Heels together. Toes apart. Back straight. Arms at my side. Watch a crowd the next time a flag is raised or brought out in a parade. You can pick out—straight away—the people who served in the military. They’ll be standing at attention.
The US military honors the flag in other ways, too. There are units in the service called Honor Guards: their job is protect the flag, to bring it to funerals, to make sure it is cared for and folded in accordance with our rules. Being selected for one of these units is a high honor.
At night, on US bases around the world, the flag is lowered with care, folded 13 times, and placed under watch. It is unfolded with devotion early each morning and raised aloft. That too is a sacred duty.
From the moment a slain American service member is placed inside a casket, a flag covers them. When the body is set to be lowered into the ground, that flag is folded, and given to the family of the fallen—a symbol of our country’s devotion to them and their loved one’s devotion to our country.
These are some of the most important rituals in the military, as vital as any of our drills or the maintenance of our equipment. In the service, we gave the flag its proper respect.
When the flag is raised, we stand as Americans. We stand because America represents a promise that is larger than all of us. When people refuse to stand for the flag, they make that moment about them. It’s a shame that some people would use our country’s greatest symbol of selfless service for a selfish act.
We’ll always have differences as a country, but the flag deserves reverence from all of us, no matter our disagreements. That’s what I was taught, and it’s what I will teach my children. God bless the United States, our servicemen and servicewomen, and our flag.
“…It’s a shame that some people would use our country’s greatest symbol of selfless service for a selfish act…”
Selfish? That tells us much more about the writer than anyone else.
Our nation’s greatest representation is the Constitution and its over 200 years of history.
“….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….”
Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.