American Patriotism and Its Discontents

Today is See You at the Pole Day (SYATP), an event that has been happening nationwide for decades. Across the country, school prayer clubs will organize in front of their schools to take part in, what is supposed to be, student led prayer around the school’s flag pole. Open to all students enrolled at the school, these events can attract a surprising number of kids. I can vaguely remember the event taking place at my middle school and high school roughly fifteen to twenty years ago. I never paid much attention to it then, though it wasn’t a popular activity at my schools. I was surprised to see how large some schools’ prayer groups can grow.

While this event may seem unconstitutional, there are conditions that hosting schools are supposed to abide by. No school administrators, staff, or parents can be involved in organizing or participating in the event. The function must take place before the start of the school day and cannot disrupt normal school activities. Most importantly, no student can be forced for coerced into participating in this prayer event. However, by conducting a quick Facebook search, it didn’t take long to discover these rules are not taken seriously. Countless schools have posted SYATP events organized by parents or faculty, inviting parents, faculty, and the community, and offering free snacks or breakfast. For some schools, SYATP is a project of their PTA.

For a student group to organize student led-prayer for a group of students only is constitutionally protected. The constitutional violation occurs when the religious community, parents, and/or school faculty enter the picture. American Humanist Association legal director David Niose said of the event, “Teachers on school premises are representatives of the school and the school’s authority, and therefore they cannot engage in religious activities on school premises with students. When teachers participate in SYAP, or when the school provides breakfast to accompany the event, the clear message is one of endorsing religion. Religious minorities become outsiders, while the Christians huddled around the pole become the in-group, the club. This is exactly what the Establishment Clause is intended to prevent.”

There is no denying that Christian favoritism exists in America. Christian proselytizing in public schools is an ongoing problem that the AHA’s legal center is very familiar with. We receive regular complaints that prayer and Christianity are being promoted in public schools, places where children should be free to express themselves without the influence of personal religious beliefs. Often students’ constitutional rights are violated by the intrusion of a school administrator’s personal religious belief system, or by being punished for exercising their rights to opt out of certain activities, from teacher-led prayers to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In a school setting where teachers and community leaders hold positions of power, taking advantage of a child’s fledgling understanding of their constitutional rights is easily done. Even when a child does speak up, they face alienation, embarrassment, and often punishment.

The problem doesn’t stop in the classroom. Many of our nation’s leaders have a gross misunderstanding of the Constitution and the First Amendment. The current, raging controversy within the NFL involving players kneeling during the National Anthem began with former 49ner, Colin Kaepernick, who has paid for his actions with his career. Now, hundreds of players are mimicking his protest by doing the same thing; refusing to honor a flag that represents a violent history (and many say present) for black Americans. It should come as no surprise that Americans interpret these protests as blatant disrespect to the United States, regardless of how little sense it makes to use sporting events as the proving ground for American patriotism. But what the pro-American flag, anti-protesters fail to recognize is these players are behaving truly “patriotically” by exercising their First Amendment rights as they were intended to.

Sadly, even our President fails to understand the meaning of the constitution. In response to the National Anthem protests, Trump has said that team owners should fire players who participated and fans should leave the stadium when players kneel. This constitutional ignorance seems to have spread like a plague throughout his entire administration. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin explained Trump’s opposition to the protests even further by adding, “I think what the president is saying is that the owners should have a rule that players should have to stand in respect for the national anthem. This isn’t about Democrats, it’s not about Republicans, it’s not about race, it’s not about free speech. They can do free speech on their own time.” What he is really saying is those in power can’t be bothered by others’ constitutional rights and they should only be expressed in private. Well, Mnuchin, that’s not how Constitutional rights work. One of Trump’s most trusted religious confidants, Pastor Robert Jeffress, irrationally said, “These players ought to be thanking God that they live in a country where they’re not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they’re also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking the knee like they would be in North Korea.” Financial success is not a tradeoff for constitutional rights, and the United States is unlike North Korea precisely because we have our Constitutional rights. To suggest that Americans are ungrateful because they exercise their rights (and because we would be worse off living anywhere else!) is illogical, hypocritical, and absurd.

So, this is what it comes down to. Parents, teachers, school administrators: you cannot coax or encourage your students to participate in prayers or religious activities that take place on school grounds; you cannot participate in student-led prayers or religious activities that take place on school grounds. School prayer and religious clubs are for students only! And as for Americans who value their freedoms and rights; the Constitution protects the freedom of speech and to protest in public, which includes taking a knee during the National Anthem. After all, this isn’t North Korea.