Standing Up for All

Gregory A. Clark served as a liaison between Joshua’s family and Joshua’s school and school district. Joshua and his mother have approved publication of this story.

It’s unfortunate when a third-grader better understands what our country stands for than does the president of the United States. But it’s encouraging when even a third-grader is willing to take a stand for the core principles of America and of humanism—freedom of speech and religion (including atheism) and justice for all. It’s inspiring when this third-grader willingly stands up for our rights even in the face of official coercion and repeated, sometimes vicious bullying.

During a recent rally in Alabama and in subsequent tweets, President Trump called for the firing of NFL players who don’t stand for the national anthem, castigating any protesting player as “a son of a bitch” and saying “those people” show “a total disrespect of everything we stand for.”


“Justice for all” is very much what this country stands for. As is freedom of speech. And rightly so. In the wake of Trump’s diatribe, more and more students are also being wrongly forced to participate in the national anthem, which defies principles enshrined in the Constitution and reinforced by subsequent judicial rulings.

The ongoing national anthem controversies (just yesterday Vice President Mike Pence abruptly left an NFL game after players took a knee during the anthem) bear a striking resemblance to those that have surrounded the Pledge of Allegiance, both historically and still today. The similarities include wrongful coercion of students, some of whose protests have recently been motivated by Trump’s unwarranted nationalism.

Many Americans support the Pledge of Allegiance and its recitation in public schools and elsewhere. But not all.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first to object to participating in the pledge. Their objections were based on religious grounds, not “disrespect” for the United States. Contrary to the American ideals of free speech and freedom of religion, they were met with violence and legal challenges. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court supported their rights.

A recent, as-yet-unheralded case of a young student in Utah, Joshua Nighthawk, tells a similar story. Joshua has refused to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance for several years, actually since the third grade. He refuses for the best of reasons—because of what he believes.

The United States Constitution supports Joshua’s decision. And although it is routinely disregarded and often unknown—even by school officials—Utah Code explicitly supports it.

To Utah’s credit, the state code specifies that public school students must be instructed yearly and by conspicuous posting that their participation in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is voluntary. It further specifies that teachers and other students should show respect for students who opt out. Unfortunately, Joshua’s school—like many others—wasn’t following Utah Code, despite the claim by the school district’s director of policy and legal services that “teachers are trained each year by the principal on the requirements of Utah Code.”

Worse still, and actually admitted by the district, Joshua’s teacher chastised him and other students for not participating in the pledge as a matter of “respect for the flag,” saying in effect (according to the family), that “If you don’t love America, move to France.”

Forcing schoolchildren to repeat a pledge that promises liberty is a sad irony indeed.

Fortunately, due to Joshua’s and his mother’s willingness to object and to insist on his exercising his right, Joshua’s case was resolved in his favor. Less fortunately, other schools in the district and throughout the state continue to ignore the code’s provisions, despite the district’s being made aware of these violations. It appears that this challenge will have to be met repeatedly by individual students, one by one.

Joshua shows us that it can be done. But it isn’t always easy. Since he stopped participating in the pledge, he’s been repeatedly and viciously bullied. Yet he has resolutely kept to his beliefs. His reasons are sound:

— Like the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick, Joshua rejects the claim that there is liberty and justice for all in the United States. Minorities, women, the disabled, and LGBTQ people often aren’t treated equally.

— If people fought for our freedom to stand, then they fought for our freedom to sit.

— Joshua wants to exercise that freedom. Joshua doesn’t believe in God. He doesn’t want to lie about that (Historically, the pledge didn’t even reference God until 1954).

— Pronouncements like the Pledge of Allegiance divide rather than unite our world. We should care about everyone, not just those on one side of a fence.

Some Americans disagree with Joshua. Some even object to his opting out. But Joshua has at least one thing right: forced participation in the pledge is antithetical to the core principles of our country and of the pledge itself.

As US Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in affirming students’ rights to opt out of the pledge in 1943, “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.”

True liberty means having the right to say either “yes” or “no.”

Thank you, Joshua. Thank you for choosing not to stand for the pledge, as is your right—whether others agree with your reasons or not. By sitting, you continue to stand for the principles and liberties that actually do make America great.