In Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy, King Lear, a series of appalling crimes are committed in a context of betrayal, torture, war and invasion. In Act III, the Earl of Gloucester is brought forward so his eyes can be put out, but suddenly, a servant objects and draws his sword to try to stop it. Astonished, Lear’s daughter Regan cries “A peasant stand up thus?” and kills this unnamed common person, little above the level of a slave or serf. Professor Carroll Edwards, who taught me Shakespeare’s plays at the University of Kansas, sagely observed that this is the moment when resistance to tyranny begins in the play.
The very week George W. Bush was being re-elected president of the United States, in large part through the frenzied support of the Christian Right, a young high school student in the little town of Webb City in southwest Missouri began our Resistance. Only 16 years old, and almost completely isolated in the local community, except for his mother, Brad Mathewson wore a T-shirt to school that proclaimed, “Gay/Straight Alliance.” The administration told him to take it off and turn it inside out so these “disruptive” words could not be seen. At first, Mathewson complied, but then decided to take a stand for constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. The American Civil Liberties Union quickly took his case.
Fanatic reactionaries are emboldened now, everywhere in America, but they can never prevail as long as we have young people like Brad Mathewson in our midst. He and others like him have many allies from all sectors, straight, gay, lesbian, etc. The fundamentalists have attempted, with some initial success, to make homosexuals scapegoats. We remember, we remember well, how the Nazis condemned them to the concentration camps, where they were forced to wear a Pink Triangle, and eventually were sent to the ovens like everyone else who resisted or was “different.”
It is true that, within our borders, we now do not usually have physical torture, imprisonment, or execution for freethinkers or dissidents. But there are many other ways of repressing us, such as dismissal from employment or suspension from school.
Similarly to the Mathewson case in Missouri, students in other states like Mississippi and even in Wisconsin in the North have resisted forced school prayers, or recital of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, which includes the phrase, “under God.” In the latter, 13-year-old Rachel Morris refused to stand and to recite the pledge in early September, even though rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court held for decades that no one can be forced against his or her will to recite the pledge. In this case, the Freedom from Religion Foundation came to her aid, and got the school administration to tell students they did not have to stand or recite the pledge.
A California physician and attorney, Michael Newdow, objected to the “under God” part of the pledge on behalf of his daughter, and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. The court, however, declined to take the matter up on the grounds that Newdow had not actually married the mother of his daughter.
The crux here is that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thus, to insert “under God” into the pledge, as Congress did in 1954, establishes “religion” and is unconstitutional on its face.
Noticeably, many freethinkers now making a stand, not only in the U.S. but in Iran, etc., are very young, in their teenage years. Certainly in the U.S., many schools operate with a “discipline” similar to prisons. One critical issue here is: Who will defend youth and student rights? Their parents, the schools, the state? Indeed, who will defend them if they have to go against all three?
In 1943, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court in the Barnette case, confirming the right of school children to refuse to recite the pledge. (The case involved Jehovah’s Witness children in West Virginia.) “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” wrote Jackson, “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.”
Justice Jackson went on to represent the United States in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. Such is the spirit of character in the real United States of America.
Fred Whitehead, who lives in Kansas City, Kan., co-edited “Freethought on the American Frontier.” He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. This article is reprinted from Brave Minds: Journal of the International Committee to Protect Freethinkers.