As voting day approaches, an issue about the American flag and school board meetings has boiled over in New Paltz. Specifically, several school board members — including one standing for reelection on May 15 — choose not to stand during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The fact that four of the sitting board trustees do not stand as the pledge is recited is not news; they’ve all remained quietly seated for those few seconds for at least months, and sometimes years. What may have changed is the makeup of people who attend those meetings. Certain issues — such as racial equity in the schools and financial equity for athletic programs — have helped pack the desks at board meetings this year. That they chose not to stand may not technically be news, but it’s clearly new information in some quarters.
Lenny Zapka took the first opportunity — a public hearing on the budget — to voice his displeasure with the practice. He said that he found it “the ultimate disgrace” and insulting to “the men and women who have given their lives for this country.” He later posted to Facebook video footage of the four trustees remaining seated during the pledge, which initiated vigorous debate in the New Paltz Facebook group and elsewhere on the site.
“It’s been happening for almost two years,” school board president Michael O’Donnell wrote in an e-mail. “What happened last week was that a community member manufactured a controversy in an attempt to alter the course of an election. The district’s video and the time the video was posted to Facebook clearly indicate this was a pre-meditated act…The full board has been on the receiving end of a significant amount of vitriol (entirely predictable), which will only escalate once your story runs.”
This is not the first time the Pledge of Allegiance has generated keen interest locally, nor the first time it has assumed political overtones. When Sara Niccoli ran for State Senate in the 46th district in 2016, she was sharply criticized for not reciting the pledge; Niccoli explained at the time that she affirms its values without reciting it, in keeping with her Quaker faith.
A New Paltz Town Planning Board member tried to get the oath added to that board’s agenda in 2015, taking the story to Fox News after the attempt failed. Several months of pressure on planning and town board members followed.
As laid out in the U.S. Flag Code, the Pledge of Allegiance “should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.” Military members in uniform are expected to instead silently render a salute, which is also afforded to veterans as an option. Nothing in the code mandates participation, instead simply describing proper participation.
Further, the flag code generally carries no penalties, and Supreme Court decisions since the 1920s have broadly protected expression as part of free speech, up to and including burning a United States flag in protest. There is, for example, no penalty for leaving a flag on display without illuminating it, infractions of which are not unknown on private and public property within the school district’s boundaries.