Arkansas 10-Year-Old Won’t Pledge Allegiance Until Gays Gain Equality

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 11, 2009

A 10-year-old Arkansas boy name Will Phillips has decided that he cannot in good conscience pledge allegiance to the flag as long as the country for which it stands refuses legal equality to its GLBT citizens.

That stand has brought young Mr. Phillips anti-gay taunts in the lunch room, but admiration from around the country, reports a Nov. 5 Arkansas Times article. The West Fork School District fifth grader clashed with a substitute teacher for his refusal to stand for the pledge, prompting a call to Will's mother, Laura Phillips. When the principal acknowledged that Will has the right to refuse to say the pledge, Ms. Phillips asked that her son receive an apology--a request that the principal declined to honor.

A 1943 Supreme Court decision found that schools may not punish students for refusing to recite the pledge. Objections to compulsory recitation of the pledge arose from the Jehovah's Witnesses on the basis that their religion does not permit expressions of allegiance to anything other than their own religion and to God. The Jehovah's Witnesses lost their first case before the Court in 1940, and reportedly suffered from bias-motivated violence in the aftermath of that case. The Court's 1943 decision reversed the earlier finding, and students have had the right to decline saying the pledge since then, although socially such refusal is often met with disapproval.

Such has been the case with Will Phillips' stand, but he hasn't backed down. Laura Phillips told the Arkansas Times that her 10-year-old is "probably more aware of the meaning of the pledge than a lot of adults. He's not just doing it rote recitation. We raised him to be aware of what's right, what's wrong, and what's fair."

Fairness in this case is more than a mere abstraction, since the family has a number of openly gay friends and has participated in GLBT equality events such as Pride parades. Will, who told the newspaper that he would like to pursue a career in law when he's older, could not square the tenets of the pledge with the political realities faced by his family's GLBT friends, whose family and individual rights are under constant challenge. "I really don't feel that there's currently liberty and justice for all," said Will.

That led the young man to his decision not to pledge his allegiance due to the injustice he perceived to prevail against gays and lesbians. He discussed the matter with his family and then took his stand--or rather, refused to stand with the rest of the kids when the time for the pledge came around each morning. The first week of the young man's protest happened to be a week when a substitute teacher, a friend of Will's grandparents, was in charge of the class; as days went by, the teacher grew more aggravated, until finally she took Will to task.

"She got a lot more angry and raised her voice and brought my mom and my grandma up," Will told the Arkansas Times. "I was fuming and was too furious to really pay attention to what she was saying. After a few minutes, I said, 'With all due respect, ma'am, you can go jump off a bridge.'"

That was enough to get Will sent to the principal's office, which was when his mother received a call. The principal "said we have to talk about Will, because he told a sub to jump off a bridge," recounted Will's mother. "My first response was: Why? He's not just going to say this because he doesn't want to do his math work." Upon learning the specifics of the exchange, Laura Phillips requested an apology for her son. "She said, 'Well I don't think that's necessary at this point,'" Laura Phillips told the Arkansas Times.

Will's mother tweeted about the incident, and family friends informed the media. Support has poured in from around the country, and some of Will's classmates have also been supportive.

But not everyone, said Laura Phillips, has been supportive, and those who oppose Will's stand "are much more crazy, and out of control and vocal about it than supporters are."

Moreover, Will's stand for equal rights for gays has led those who disagree to attack him personally with anti-gay epithets: "In the lunchroom and in the hallway, they've been making comments and doing pranks, and calling me gay," Will said. "It's always the same people, walking up and calling me a gaywad."

That hasn't been easy for Will, who skipped fourth grade but seems older than his age, especially in contrast to some of his peers. Said Laura Phillips, "It's really frustrating to him that people are being so immature."

The interviewer from The Arkansas Times asked Will what it means to be an American. The answer: "Freedom of speech. The freedom to disagree. That's what I think pretty much being an American represents."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.