Last week’s decision by New Paltz Town Planning Board members not to start reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before meetings was not the last word spoken on the subject. After losing the 4-3 vote, board member Amy Cohen — who first raised the issue last autumn — took her case to the town board and, finding no satisfaction there, spoke about the cause on Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends Monday morning. Numerous media outlets have picked up the story, and board member Lagusta Yearwood was singled out for derision by people around the country who disagreed with her characterization that the pledge is “third grade and silly.” Republican Congressional candidate Andrew Heaney has even decided to make this a campaign issue.
At the town board meeting last Thursday, Cohen asked members to approve a resolution that very night to require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to open all meetings of board and commissions of the town government. Thereafter, she said, doing so would be a “non-event.” No such resolution was on the agenda, and no board member raised the subject for discussion.
Cohen’s colleague, Michael Zierler, doesn’t see it the same way. He recited the pledge when he was a member of the village board, he explained, but doesn’t “feel strongly about it.” As to why he chose to vote against adding it to the agenda, he said that after listening to both sides, he found no “compelling argument to change” the board’s procedures, and said that he didn’t believe the issue to be germane to the responsibilities of Planning Board members.
Zierler further said that he was “rankled” by people such as Heaney and others weighing in and suggesting that the decision indicates a lack of patriotism. “I vote, I support veterans in need, I spend thousands of hours volunteering,” he said, while arguing that a decision to recite the pledge is a “personal issue. We need more tolerance, not rage,” he said. “The Pledge of Allegiance does not define who I am. Don’t judge me by what you think is right.”
Heaney has twice tried to entice Democrat Zephyr Teachout, seeking her own party’s nomination for Congress, to join him in urging town planning board members to reverse their decision. In a letter sent Monday, he wrote, “I’m sending you this copy of the pledge as a solemn reminder of the approximately 1,300 veterans from Ulster County who died defending our nation. Calling the Pledge of Allegiance a ‘total waste of time’ is an insult to their service and memory.”
It was planning board member Lyle Nolan, not Teachout, who characterized its recitation in that way. In urging Teachout — whom Heaney apparently expects to face in the November election, should he win his own party’s primary in June — to encourage board members to reconsider, he wrote, “Last year, when you ran for governor as a liberal alternative to Andrew Cuomo, it seemed you were rarely afraid to take a stand. Your silence now is baffling.”
The suggestion that Teachout called the pledge a “total waste of time” is but one error flying in the wake of this story. The Fox & Friends piece did not include the fact that one of the board members who voted against its recitation —Chairman Mike Calimano — is himself a veteran, as he stated during the discussion. The same piece ran with a headline indicating that board members had voted to ban the pledge, rather than voting against adding it. A site which critiqued the Fox coverage referred to Cohen as a former police chief, when in fact she served as a police commissioner.
Yearwood, whose comments from October have earned special ire among conservatives, posted remarks on Facebook Monday about that reaction. “The board member who wanted to say the pledge ostensibly brought it up in the name of unity, but of course unity of the sort the pledge asks for only works if we all agree to say it. This is not, however, how America works, has ever worked, or is designed to work. The NY Post article about the controversy says that my belief that I can simultaneously love this country and feel that saying the pledge is contrary to the values on which it was founded is ‘bizarre,’ but I stand by it.” She also wrote, “As I’ve been writing this, I just got an e-mail sent through the website of my business saying I’m a disgrace to people who have fought and died to protect our country. Maybe some of the people sending these messages will see this note and see that we’re all on the same side, the one with the freedom and equality and peace. And space for differing opinions without hatred.”