That Grand Old Flag

THE American flag and the national anthem sung in its praise represent a system of values set forth in the Constitution of the United States. The US can exist without its flag; it cannot exist if Americans do not respect its Constitution.

The First Amendment to that document guarantees all Americans freedom of speech and religion. Fans of the National Basketball Association and others ought to keep that in mind when considering the case of Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

Abdul-Rauf drew the ire of NBA officials a couple of weeks ago when he persisted in refusing to stand for the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before games, in violation of an NBA rule. Abdul-Rauf explained that given his interpretation of his Muslim religion and his understanding of what the flag stood for - he had in mind slavery and racial discrimination - he could not in good conscience stand while the anthem was played. Later, after discussing the matter with other Muslims, he stated he would stand and pray silently during the anthem and the league accepted the offer.

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Had Abdul-Rauf showed up to play with his hair dyed orange or sporting a new tattoo, a la Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls, he would have drawn snickers but little else. Instead, he stood sincerely on conscience, and has been ridiculed, sanctioned, and cursed as a result.

And not only he. In a despicable act of bigotry, three radio station disc jockeys paraded into a Denver mosque a week ago playing the national anthem on a trumpet and a bugle. One wore a turban; all wore shoes in violation of Muslim religious practice.

Is it really necessary to recall that this country was founded by Anglicans who wanted to say their prayers in English instead of Latin; by Puritans who wanted their churches free of religious imagery and bishops; by Quakers who refused to take their hats off for judges or kings, who refused to swear oaths, and who, with their Swiss Mennonite brothers, refused to serve in the military? In their day, each of these stands was enough to condemn a man or a woman to prison - or even the gallows.

Those who have condemned Abdul-Rauf would make the flag a meaningless idol more worthy of honor than the principles it stands for. The three men who played the fool in Denver desecrated a mosque. But they also desecrated the flag far more seriously than had they burned it - or refused to stand during the national anthem.

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