Ten-year-old Will Phillips of West Fork, Ark., isn’t your average disobedient kid. Despite repeated promptings from his elementary-school teacher, the young boy refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance in class on the grounds that the U.S. fails to live up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all” by barring gays and lesbians from marrying. In an interview with CNN, Phillips stated that he thought that “[gay people] should have the rights all people should” and that he was “not going to swear that they do.”
Phillips’s act of defiance was a brave move for a 10-year-old—or anyone, for that matter—especially in the face of criticism from his teacher and his peers. Phillips claimed that other students at his school reacted negatively toward his behavior, hurling derisive epithets at him for bringing up the issue of gay rights. He acted all the more admirably by standing up for his beliefs in the face of opposition and prejudice.
Certainly, Phillips’s reasoning was somewhat simplistic and his manner of objection crude—his decision to tell his teacher to “go jump off a bridge,” for example, may not have been the most diplomatic way to deal with her attempts to make him say the Pledge. But the argument behind his protest was a sound one. Phillips demonstrated a remarkable level of political and social awareness well beyond his years in recognizing that equality and justice for all citizens has not yet been achieved in America.
Only a few weeks ago, the passage of Maine’s Question 1 overturned recent state legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry. Prior to the repeal, Maine had been one of only five states to legally recognize marriage between same-sex couples. The vast majority of states have Defense of Marriage Acts—limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples—on the books. Given that the right to marry is still withheld from many individuals because of their sexual orientation, Phillips had good cause to question the existence of “liberty and justice for all.”
Phillips clearly found the meaning of the Pledge inconsistent with the status of equal rights in America, and he should not have been pressured to say it against his will. His refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag was in fact a patriotic form of dissent in keeping with the best ideals of the republic for which it stands. Numerous important movements in U.S. history began with individuals who recognized injustice and inequality in society and did something about it. His conscientious objection was a principled act of disobedience that deserved respect and encouragement rather than derision. The ideals of the Pledge of Allegiance may never completely align with the realities of society, but there’s no reason to why people like Will Phillips shouldn’t strive to narrow the gap.