The situation started innocently enough: new Enfield Town Board member Stephanie Redmond, at her first meeting after being elected, made a comment during the board’s first meeting of 2020, on Jan. 8.
“I have something kind of random,” she began her suggestion.
What followed was Redmond positing that as an inclusionary measure, the board should remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance they recite at the beginning of meetings. Redmond, who’s not religious, said she felt taking out that phrase would be more welcoming for people who feel like her, and would further the separation of church and state.
After a brief, straight-forward seven minute discussion, the board decided that instead of editing the pledge itself, they would simply remove the pledge from its place atop the Town Board’s agenda, an alternative suggested by Town Supervisor Beth McGee. The measure was approved 4-1 with Town Board member Bob Lynch dissenting, both vocally and with his vote. With a minuscule crowd in attendance, there was no uproar.
“We’re going to have to sell tickets to these meetings,” Redmond commented directly after the vote.
Though it initially passed rather quietly, subsequent coverage in the Ithaca Voice and the Friendly Atheist predictably inflamed certain residents of Enfield, particularly those who feel like the pledge is a necessary display of their loyalty to America. They’ve shown up en masse at Town Board meetings since then, voicing their displeasure to the board, most contentiously last Wednesday, Feb. 12. At that meeting, opposition was strong enough that it was announced a special meeting would be held to revisit the topic later this month.
McGee claims she’s received letters of support from residents inside and outside of Enfield, the more rural, relatively more conservative town located eight miles west of Ithaca with a population of 3,500. But on Feb. 12, the second Town Board meeting since the decision to remove the pledge, McGee and the other board members faced a largely hostile crowd of about 35 who accused them of muzzling patriotism, flouting the flag and catering to the minority while silencing the majority.
The feelings weren’t universal in the crowd, as one person stood to thank the board for their decision, expressing her long-held discomfort with the inclusion of “under God” in the pledge, similar to the feelings that led Redmond to initially suggest the change.
In contrast to the first meeting after the decision, where McGee facilitated a respectful discussion on the matter and suspended parliamentary procedure to allow for back-and-forth with the audience, the meeting Feb. 12 displayed more tension and anger. The meeting included two recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance during the public comment period led by audience members, meant as an act of defiance against the board.
“It’s very clear that the pledge is not ‘banned’ from these spaces,” McGee said, both during the meeting and in a subsequent interview. “It’s like I said Wednesday night, ‘You realize we said the pledge more tonight than we ever have before, right?’ It’s not something that’s being banned from the room.”
McGee said she doesn’t feel the pledge is tied to her patriotism.
For her part, Redmond doesn’t regret her decision to broach the topic, maintaining that despite tradition, a government-led recitation of the pledge is an inappropriate blend of government and religion.
“I am not comfortable saying the pledge, I believe in education over indoctrination,” Redmond said. “I also am not religious, so having that spirituality invoked at the beginning of a government-facilitated meeting felt uncomfortable to me. There’s a strong separation of church and state for a reason.”
Clearly, Redmond wasn’t quite aware of the turmoil she would stir with the suggestion, but that hasn’t made her back down. As she said during the initial discussion, she still seems fully prepared to “go to the mats” on the topic.
She also noted, correctly, that Enfield would not be alone in Tompkins County if they did exclude the pledge, as the Town of Ulysses, the Village of Trumansburg and the Village of Lansing all don’t include the pledge in their agenda. The City of Ithaca does, but only for Common Council meetings. Efforts to remove the pledge in other small municipalities nationwide have faced backlash among residents, such as St. Louis Park, Minnesota, which removed its pledge in June only to reverse course a month later after protests by residents and even a tweet from President Donald Trump. Congressman Tom Reed, a Republican who represents the area in the House of Representatives, took the opportunity to call Enfield’s decision an example of an “extreme liberal agenda” in January.
“I didn’t think it’d be this controversial,” Redmond said. “There’s a lot of Town Boards that don’t say it at the beginning of their meetings. And, usually, there’s the five board members and the clerk and a handful of people in the audience. So it seemed kind of pointless for us to say the pledge beforehand. Think about how many people say the pledge before they get to work. It didn’t seem essential. I didn’t realize… I feel like we have bigger fish to fry, honestly than worrying about this. I worry about it distracting from time we have to spend on other things.”
Redmond and McGee alike highlighted one positive aspect of the response, which is that it proves the passion of Enfield residents regarding their local government, even if that passion is shown currently in the form of contempt for them.
“I enjoy when people take part in the civic process,” McGee said. “I encourage them to do it respectfully, so we can all talk and I can share facts with them and point things out [...] “I totally understand people’s sensitivities to it.”
“It’s definitely the way we have to move forward,” Redmond said. “I hope it subsides and we can get on with other business.”
McGee said she’s received “lots of” calls in support of her decision, while also alleging that she’d been the target of a couple threatening calls. One email, from an Enfield resident, McGee posted to Facebook, saying she was “disappointed” by the content and in her fellow community members. The email itself is a rambling, semi-coherent extended quotation of a bit from comedian Jeff Foxworthy with the refrain “You might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.” The message is vague until it ends with a final message directed toward McGee specifically.
“Beth - By eliminating the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of Town Board meetings you have shown disrespect to the veterans who risked their lives for our freedom,” the email concluded. “Also, we are one nation under God. It says so on the currency you are being paid to represent us.”
As evidenced by the email and the recent meetings, residents in opposition of the move don’t sound prepared to drop it and move on. After several requests to reconsider and restore the pledge, McGee and the board agreed to set a special meeting on Feb. 26 that will further discuss the issue, adding at least one more chapter to the saga. One of the potential options for resolutions could be the bill introduced by member Bob Lynch, the sole negative vote in the initial decision. The bill explicitly allows for Town Board members and public attendees to decline to participate in the recitation of the pledge, but it also restores the pledge’s place at the beginning of each meeting.
Two of the more prominent speakers at the meeting were Ed and Helene Hetherington, both of whom spoke in favor of reinstating the pledge as a permanent fixture in the meeting agenda. The couple attacked the decision from two different angles: Ed said the pledge is a necessary reminder of citizens’ loyalty to the United States, whereas Helene took a far more religious, fire-and-brimstone approach, arguing that ignoring God in the pledge was profoundly sinful and disrespectful of, in her belief, the creation of Earth.
“Every place that I’ve been where we’ve had public meetings, we’ve always recited the pledge,” Ed Hetherington said. “I recited it when I was in school. Every day, school-age kids recited the pledge. And those that didn’t, they still stood and they still respected the flag. You just need to have a commitment to your country.”
Based on a 1943 Supreme Court decision, students cannot be compelled to stand, recognize or participate in the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, and to do so is a violation of freedom of speech.
One point Hetherington reiterated was that he felt blindsided by the swiftness of the decision, besides that he disagrees with it anyway. Moreover, he thinks that McGee, Redmond and the board are serving the desires of a small group of dissidents instead of fulfilling what he feels is their civic duty to carry out the sentiment of the majority. However, Hetherington admitted that even if a hypothetical referendum were held to democratically decide whether or not the pledge should be included, and the people of Enfield voted to keep it off the agenda, he wouldn’t be satisfied.
“Not really, but I don’t think that would ever happen,” Ed said. “I firmly believe that it’s the majority of people that would stand up for the pledge. It feels like the minority is pushing their agenda on the majority.”
The issue is obviously personal for Hetherington and his wife, who brought up that her husband served in the Vietnam War for 19 months. Military service was another common theme that popped up during the meeting and in interviews: veterans feeling that their service was being disrespected (though, for the record, McGee’s husband is a veteran and is unbothered by the removal of the pledge). Hetherington declared he’d be at whatever future meetings are held on the topic, and judging by the ardor shown by others in opposition, they likely will too, setting up a staredown between some residents and their government that could last past the special meeting Feb. 26.
“I don’t care how long it takes, that’s just the job and the process,” McGee said. “If it ‘s not this issue, it’s going to be another issue. I like that, I like people being engaged. As long as it takes is fine. And even if people don’t get the result that they want, it doesn’t mean the process was wrong. [...] I understand that it’s an emotional issue for people. But we use these types of things a lot to just hammer each other because of other frustrations we have.”