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The Facebook message (above) is similar to many posts and comments since last (night) following the graduation of the latest fire department recruit class in Baltimore County, Maryland. Many firefighters and others were quite upset that three members of the class did not join their classmates in saluting during the national anthem. While this post characterizes the trio as “disobeying an order to salute the American flag”, others referred to the non-salutes as a protest. Neither assessment of the situation is accurate.
In a Facebook message, the Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman made clear this was neither insubordination, a protest or someone’s political statement. Instead, this was about religious freedom, a right guaranteed under the First Amendment. All three who didn’t salute are Jehovah’s Witnesses and their actions were not a surprise to those in charge.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christian, but not aligned with mainstream Christianity. Jehovah’s Witnesses view saluting the flag of any nation as an act of worship, according to McKell Miller, a regional spokesman for the organization.
“We want people to understand is that we’re not trying to make a political statement. We’re not some group trying to disrespect the government or disrespect the country we live in, we make a point to pray for our governmental leaders,” Miller said. “Even though governments have authority, we’ve already given our allegiance to our God.”
The First Amendment gives us the right to worship–or not worship–as we choose. Baltimore County made it clear in its Facebook post they support these new firefighters in exercising their religious freedom in this way.
We are aware of concerns about three recruits who stood but did not salute during the National Anthem during tonight's…
In case that didn’t provide enough clarity, the spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Fire Department, Elise Armacost, reinforced it in her interview with The Baltimore Sun’s Codey Boterler:
“This is certainly not the first time that we’ve had Jehovah’s Witnesses as fire department members,” Armacost said in a later interview. “And it has absolutely no bearing on their service to Baltimore County.”
As we’ve posted many times, attorneys like our friend Curt Varone at Fire Law Blog, tell us many First Amendment cases involving government agencies come down to a balancing test articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court a half-century ago. In particular, the element of that test that says the government agency has to show its interests in carrying out its mission outweighs an employee’s 1A rights. We’ve seen this come into play many times where firefighters and police officers are fired for troubling social media posts. My layman’s view of this is it’s probably a lot easier for a public safety agency to articulate in court how racist, misogynistic or violent remarks from a cop or firefighter impact a department’s ability to do its job than trying to show how a peaceful non-salute for religious reasons is detrimental to a department’s ability to serve the public. I’ve reached out to Curt for his insight. Let’s see if he bites.