Hermosa commissioner’s pledge skip prompts dispute on liberties, patriotism
by Ryan McDonald
For the past several months, Robert Rosenfeld, chair of the Hermosa Beach Parks, Recreation and Community Resources Advisory Commission, has omitted from the commission’s monthly meetings an item found on City Hall agendas throughout the country: the Pledge of Allegiance.
In an interview, Rosenfeld said he understood saying the pledge at momentous, one-time occasions, such as a citizenship ceremony or being admitted into the state bar. (Rosenfeld himself, like all commissioners and council members, had to take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the California Constitution before being sworn into the commission.) But his frequent observation of city meetings convinced him that reciting the pledge had become “rote.”
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“I worry that it dilutes the significance of something that ought to be really thoughtfully considered,” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld assumed the rotating chairmanship for the commission’s May meeting, but was absent. At the June 5 meeting, Rosenfeld called for a roll call of commissioners. Recreation Coordinator Lisa Nichols asked, “Should we do the Pledge of Allegiance first?” Rosenfeld said no, and has omitted it without comment from staff or other commissioners at each meeting since. He briefly addressed the decision not to say the pledge at this month’s meeting, and a video of his comments began to circulate on social media, including on Advocates for Hermosa, a local issues Facebook page that often draws conservative viewpoints.
Rosenfeld said he spent several hours looking over the city code before deciding to omit the pledge, and stressed that it was not intended to be a statement about the current political climate. He did not anticipate that his decision would be controversial, both because of the small number of people who typically attend the commission’s meetings, and because of how casually those in the audience usually seemed to treat the pledge.
The omission drew further criticism at Monday’s City Council meeting, which began with a flag salute that featured one audience member loudly shouting the words of the pledge. Several Hermosa veterans said they were disappointed with Rosenfeld’s decision.
“The importance of the flag and of the salute to the flag to veterans is very deep. Since I heard about this last week I’ve been upset about it. I go to sleep at night thinking about it. It’s so disrespectful that we don’t have our Pledge of Allegiance at our public meetings. It isn’t the law and it isn’t mandatory, but it’s traditional,” said Steve Crecy, a former parks and rec commissioner and a member of the city’s Veterans Memorial Committee.
Mayor Jeff Duclos, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, said he was also troubled.
“I certainly share their concern with not only what has been done, but with what has not been done. I have great faith in all of our commissions as a body. And I would hope that our commissioners would address this in their next scheduled meeting,” Duclos said.
Rosenfeld said he did not approach his fellow commissioners about his decision. He described them as “really polite and considerate” and said they had not been aggressive about the issue, but that some, whom he did not identify, had “subtly expressed concern.” Reached for comment, fellow commissioner Barbara Ellman lamented the direction the discussion had taken on social media and declined to comment further, saying she planned to make a statement at the next commission meeting, on Oct. 2.
The Pledge of Allegiance has inspired some of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most famous First Amendment jurisprudence. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, decided at the height of World War II, the majority held that the Constitution prohibited compelling students to say the pledge.
“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,” Justice Robert Jackson wrote.
But the high court has never explicitly decided whether school teachers, or other public officials, may be compelled to lead a flag salute as part of their duties — a federal circuit and some state supreme courts have held they cannot — and the question implicates other constitutional issues. Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Berkeley school of law, has written that “Speech by public employees is clearly less protected than other speech; First Amendment protection does not exist unless the expression is about public concern, and even then, the employee can be disciplined or fired if the government can show, on balance, that the efficient operation of the office justified the action.”
The closest the council came to acting Monday was when Councilmember Hany Fangary asked that the minutes of August’s parks and rec meeting be corrected to reflect that the pledge was not recited. City Attorney Michael Jenkins said the council did not have the power to change the minutes, but could ask commissioners to do so retroactively.
Rosenfeld said he would be fine with revising the minutes. But, asked about a hypothetical situation in which he was ordered to open the meeting with the pledge, said he would find that “concerning.”
“One of the things that is so great about our country is, none of us have to pledge allegiance to anything,” Rosenfeld said.