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On the Pledge, the protests, patriotism, and the past

American flag
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The firestorm that accompanied the announcement last month by the city of St. Louis Park that it would no longer begin City Council meetings with the traditional recital of the Pledge of Allegiance echoes past controversies here and elsewhere. The city’s decision was based on the view that the mantra, particularly with its reference to a deity, is not “welcoming” for the “diverse community” comprising the 45,000-resident inner-ring suburb.

Dropping the Pledge was greeted with almost universal condemnation; few who approved it spoke out publicly in support of the ban. The criticism was so swift, spirited, spontaneous, solid, and strong, that officials in The Park hastened to place recantation of the decision on the council’s agenda for its informal study session on Monday. Dozens of people protested at the session; no vote was taken on the issue but, the Star Tribune reported, “two proposals were introduced to either reverse the decision or continue the discussion with involvement from the community.” So we’re left with the distinct possibility that the council may consider a do-over.

The controversy even caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday morning tweeted his support of those who were outraged by the prohibition.

Although not directly related, the pledge scenario is traceable to the “take-a-knee” protests of “The Star Spangled Banner” instigated by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and some primarily African-American football players and other athletes, which has spread to other high-profile players and venues. They include women’s U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who added to her prominence by declining to participate in the pre-game ritual during the recently concluded World Cup series in France, in which the American squad, led by her kicking prowess, defeated all seven foes, capped off with a stunning 2-0 victory, over The Netherlands to successfully defend its world title, sparked by Rapinoe’s key initial goal in last Sunday’s championship game.

Pledge past

The brouhaha in the Park over the Pledge, rather one-sided this time around, recalled its colorful, somewhat checkered past, including turbulence here in Minnesota during the governorship nearly two decades ago of Jesse Ventura, for whom tumult was a vast understatement.

Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick
The current version of the Pledge is known by heart by nearly everyone, unlike other longer and more complex expressions of emotional patriotic fervor such the “Star Spangled Banner,” the national anthem that most people can sing the first few passages of (Oh, say can you see…”) — and then start murmuring the unmemorable remaining words.

But, to paraphrase erstwhile presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, “there’s a story for that.” The tale starts with dueling Pledges, the first created by a Union general during the Civil War, and the other by Francis Bellamy, a late 19th-century self-proclaimed Baptist “Christian Socialist” minister, who labeled the general’s Pledge “too juvenile” and undignified, and drafted one that closely resembles the modern version.

The latter was endorsed in 1923 at a gathering of flag enthusiasts and officially adopted by Congress in 1942, during the height of patriotic sentiment in the midst of World War II.

Reacting to another type of wartime fervor, the surge of anti-Communism during the Cold War, Congress added the “under God” phrase in the text of the Pledge, a reference to a deity that was, surprisingly, not part of the format authored by the Baptist cleric — although it was in the predecessor version he deemed infantile.

Ventura’s view

The Minnesota governor at the turn of the millennium waded into the controversy, although unlike other contretemps during his four-year term from 1999-2003, this was not of his own making. It occurred in May 2002 as the legislative session drew to a close, the final one during Ventura’s tenure.

The lawmakers passed a bill requiring all school districts to require the recitation of the Pledge in public schools at least once weekly. The measure did not significantly break new ground, as numerous districts or individual schools in Minnesota already mandated or urged schools to recite the Pledge on a regular basis and, around the nation, about half of the state’s had similar mandates while a large number of other school districts recommended it be done.


But Ventura had a differing view. Although no fan of compelled religious observance, the governor did not object on that ground. In one of his final actions, he vetoed the measure on different grounds, explaining that he disdained forced patriotism. In vetoing the measure, the ex-Navy seal (and professional wrestler and broadcaster) explained that expressions of patriotism should come “from the heart … by choice,” rather than governmental compulsion.

Ventura’s veto was never challenged, and the proposition has remained dormant since the governor returned to the private sector and his retreat in Mexico. But school districts, individual schools, and educators remain free to invoke the Pledge in their classrooms, provided that students are not compelled to participate or punished for not doing so, notwithstanding any social approbation or ostracism they might experience for their reticence.

That proviso is an important one, indeed essential. While the courts have virtually uniformly rejected parental challenges to the Pledge in schools on grounds of violation of the freedom of expression and religion provisions of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, they do require that, in adherence to those constitutional clauses, children must be given the option of not participating in the Pledge. They generally reason that, like the “In God We Trust” reference on currency, daily religious invocations by clerics in Congress, and the unofficial but traditional “so help me God” remark in the presidential Oath of Office, the reference to a deity, is, as one court propounded, a “historical tradition,” rather than imbued with religious expression.

An unusual pair of Supreme Court rulings

But the opt-out feature for schoolchildren and, presumably, anyone else at public meetings, including future City Council sessions ones in St. Louis St. Louis Park if the Pledge is reinstated, is mandated by an unusual pair of rulings years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.

After initially upholding a mandatory Pledge requirement for public school students in 1940 in a Pennsylvania case entitled Gobitis v. Minersville School District, it recanted a bare three years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, eschewing a religious-based analysis but deeming the required recitation a violation of the First Amendment freedom of expression rights of objecting students, before the “under God” phrase was inserted more than a decade later.

The St. Louis Park roller-coaster experience in the last few weeks draws upon all of these features in recognizing both the forcefulness of the Pledge and its frailties.


Meanwhile, Kaepernick is back in the news, too. The state of Georgia last week yanked a favorable financial package for construction of a Nike facility in that state in response to the shoe manufacturer taking off the market a new design adorned with the Betsy Ross 13 Stars and Stripes Flag, reportedly because of the objection on racial grounds of one of Nike’s million-dollar endorsers, the ex-QB Kaepernick himself.

With that tempest brewing, and given the calumny St. Louis Park has encountered, it’s unlikely that any other governmental units, cities or school alike, will venture into that maelstrom at any time soon. Rather, they are likely to give their continued allegiance to the Pledge.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and historian. 

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/10/2019 - 09:23 am.

    While of course I would defend anyone who does not want to say the pledge for whatever reason, I had the sense that this decision and the explanation that it was about inclusion and being sensitive to all our community members, left unsaid that they did not want to offend illegal immigrants.

    Except this is supposed to be a nation-state under the rule of law, and government is supposed to be the will of the citizenry in action. Facilitating illegality in any context is government gone wrong.

    • Submitted by Brent Stahl on 07/10/2019 - 10:20 am.

      Mr. Duncan, you are inferring that the St. Louis Park action is all about illegal immigrants and that the city council is “facilitating illegality.” You are reaching for the stars here. There are many examples of perfectly legal immigrants being harassed in Minnesota. There are also many other Minnesota localities that do not say the pledge before city council meetings. This controversy in my view is being pursued by angry people looking for more ways to be angry.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/10/2019 - 10:46 am.

        Mr Stahl,

        What about the Pledge of Allegiance in St Louis Park is harassing legal immigrants? I would think most legal immigrants would be happy to say the pledge, if maybe not the God part.

        My point is, when I heard people from the council defending the decision, they kept talking about inclusion, and being respectful to all people, but would offer no examples of who they thought the pledge was offending.

        Personally I don’t care whether the pledge is said or not before such meetings. What I care about is gov not being disingenuous about it’s motives.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 07/10/2019 - 12:48 pm.

          The God part, IS the problem.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/11/2019 - 09:11 am.

            The God part was put in to be a problem.

            Back in the olden days, the Communist Party used to open its meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance. This was unacceptable to red-baiting America, so the words “under God” were put in to deter them.

        • Submitted by Susanne Adler on 07/11/2019 - 08:19 am.

          If you were at the meeting, you would have heard a variety of viewpoints from the City Councilmembers. Besides inclusion, other viewpoints included the inappropriateness of “under God” when there should be a separation of church and state, the rote nature of the recitation since most meetings are only attended by councilmembers and staff, and perhaps others. Unfortunately, the crowd around me was too loud for me to hear all the discussions for moving the topic forward to another study session.

          And to clarify, the City Council changed its rules of procedure to not require the recitation of the Pledge at every meeting. They could still include it on the agenda, if appropriate, for a particular meeting.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/11/2019 - 08:28 am.

          Mr. Hunter,

          “Mr Stahl,

          What about the Pledge of Allegiance in St Louis Park is harassing legal immigrants? I would think most legal immigrants would be happy to say the pledge, if maybe not the God part.”

          This isn’t about immigrants, I’m not an immigrant and I oppose the pledge. In fact several of my neighbors also appose the cheap patriotism that loyalty oaths attempt to enforce, none of them are immigrants. Our flag is a symbol of community and a nation we strive to improve, it’s not an object of worship.

  2. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 07/10/2019 - 11:41 am.

    The St. Louis Park City Council no doubt failed to plan for its action by bringing into chambers a fainting couch large enough for all of the non-resident Trump minions to collapse upon. And those Council members who advanced the action rightly can be taken to task for the political naivete of not anticipating the snowflake avalanche that the action obviously would prompt. It also is quite silly to think the action was needed to avoid being “unwelcoming” to the City’s diverse community. We all have tolerated the political cant of the pledge of allegiance for our lifetimes without suffering trauma.

    I would venture that there is a near complete disjunction between those who insist on the sanctity of the pledge of allegiance (and the flag), and those who actually think carefully about the values those symbols purport to represent and try to embody those values in their civic thinking and acts. One need look no further than the patriotic tweet from the oval office occupant, who batters every American value with each breath that he takes.

    PS Mr. Tanick – The taking of the knee is not protesting the national anthem, it is using the occasion of the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color.

    • Submitted by Susanne Adler on 07/11/2019 - 08:27 am.

      At last Monday’s meeting, I saw at least nine flags strewn on the floor as their owners were busy taking photographs of the “true Americans” in the room and taking selfies congratulating themselves for being so “patriotic.” Apparently, those who insist on the sanctity of the pledge of allegiance and the flag are not required to demonstrate it.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 07/10/2019 - 12:08 pm.

    When I attended grade school, routinely reciting the pledge seemed like a fine thing to do. Of course in those days it didn’t include the phrase, “under god,” but it seemed like part of becoming aware of civics.

    As to civics of grown-ups, I wish the folks in St. Louis Park would get as excited about more important issues of the day.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/10/2019 - 10:19 pm.

      The St Louis Park residents are indeed more concerned about greater issues beyond the pledge. The vast majority of the people at the protest were out-of-towners. Only a few people (all residents) stayed for the city business after the pledge item was discussed and tabled in the meeting.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/12/2019 - 06:07 pm.

        Hmm, seems a sharp council chair would, in the future, out the pledge issue at the end of the agenda.

        • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/16/2019 - 12:21 pm.

          We said the pledge at yesterday’s meeting after all the protesters had left. It was heartfelt and appropriate for the occasion, a donation from the American Legion to the police department for a notification system.

    • Submitted by Susanne Adler on 07/11/2019 - 07:57 am.

      It seems there are a lot of opinions from people who don’t even live in St Louis Park. I am a St Louis Park resident and was at the meeting. The room was full although I estimated only about a dozen or so were St Louis Park residents. Six uniformed men sitting behind me were from Minneapolis. There was a lot of discussion among themselves about what people in St Louis Park should and shouldn’t do to show respect for our country. The irony that Minneapolis City Council does not include recitation of the Pledge at their meetings was lost on them. MPR’s article quoted two protesters who lived in Rochester and Wayzata. Not sure why the author did not quote a resident, but I think that demonstrates the issue has nothing to do with governance in St Louis Park.

      The folks in St Louis Park are excited about more important issues of the day. Once the raucous out-of-towners left the meeting, the City Council got down to the issues important to St Louis Park that are part of our strategic priorities. Next on the agenda was a presentation by SLP Nest, a youth-led non-profit organization in St Louis Park that is doing great work within the community. Their goal is to provide a welcoming, teen-centric space that nurtures individual expression, encourages a diverse community and builds life skills. They reported on their achievements in their first year of operation and what they hoped to achieve in their second year. Their fundraising goal for year 2 is $95,000 of which they have already raised $39,000. The youth leaders asked for SLP to contribute $20,000 toward their goal. The Council (per rules at least 4 members required) agreed to include the request on the City Council Meeting Agenda for a vote of action. The youth leadership reported that the goal of encouraging a diverse community was actively pursued and that current participation in the programs reflects the diversity of the community. They did note that the youth-leadership did not reflect the community diversity yet, but that they were actively addressing the issue. Now, this would have been a worthy story to cover.

      Also notable, but really boring for most people, were the discussions on the C-1 zoning restrictions and the Efficient Building Program also known as benchmarking ordinance. All three of these topics impact the residents of St Louis Park and demonstrate that the City Council is working hard at implementing our strategic priorities.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/10/2019 - 06:24 pm.

    There is not nearly universal condemnation of this, as mandated pledges are a violation of our rights to free speech. Republicans complain when white supremacists are prevented from spitting out their hate on college campuses, but presume to tell others how to think and act.

    The author can think what he wants, and if he lives in St. Louis Park, he can legitimately testify at the city council, but otherwise he and Trump have no standing.

    And frankly, there are hundreds of other issues of greater importance than this like how we treat our children that conservatives prefer to ignore.

  5. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/10/2019 - 10:23 pm.

    To set the record straight, the sensibilities of immigrants (legal or otherwise) was not the primary reason the pledge requirement was struck. That was just one of several reasons the council members referenced, but it was the one and only reason the media outlets seized on and ran with.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/11/2019 - 09:15 am.

      The media -especially a certain legacy broadcaster with its studios near the Minneapolis-St. Paul line-have seized on to this controversy like hungry dogs on a bone. Nothing makes a better lead-in for the 10 o’clock news than a bunch of “patriots” defending “true Americanism” against “political correctness.”

  6. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/10/2019 - 10:31 pm.

    I final note on the subject. The city staff has been fielding a lot of flack from conservatives via Facebook, phone calls, and people in person pounding on the desk. Up to and including death threats. (I have a screen shot of one gentleman on Facebook saying we should find a rope and a sturdy oak tree for the city council. So much for pro-life values.)

    If you could, take a moment to call the city or drop them a postcard and let them know you appreciate them, no matter what side of the issue you’re on. Through absolutely no fault of their own they are on the front lines of the issue and are taking a lot of horrific abuse from people.

    Show them a little love if you have some spare time.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 07/10/2019 - 10:39 pm.

    The pledge has become politicized…therefore it means nothing. Maybe substitute the preamble of the big C.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 07/11/2019 - 08:12 am.

    Not much of a Jesse fan, but as a fellow vet we agree 100%. As a non religious person, what does god have to do with it? Lots of folks say the pledge, but do their best to destroy whats good about America, should we start with dividing it? What’s this liberty and justice for all stuff? Unless of course you are or are not ……… As a previous comment put it, the Trumpies came out in full force, we should all be required to do our “Sieg Heil” to show loyalty to our present corrupt regime.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/11/2019 - 09:03 am.

    History has repeatedly shown that flag worshipers tend to be the first to betray the very principles our nation is supposed to represent, whether they’re worshiping the stars and bars, the stars and stripes, or any other flag.

    At the recent City Council meeting that betrayal was on full display. A couple dozen flag waving “patriots” flooded the council chambers and tried to shout down anyone who didn’t agree with them, while demanding that elected officials ignore the Constitution they’ve sworn to uphold and rule in accordance with their demands at the expense of fellow citizens.

    The decision to seek more dialogue and clarity regarding SLP residents opinions ( A basic procedure on any democratic process) was met with loud “booing” and demands for resignations. People were told to leave if they don’t like it, and council members were declared to be un-American.

    It only gets worse when “God” enters the discussion and flag worshipers start shouting: “One Nation UNDER GOD” as if theocracy is a basic Constitutional principle, and ceremonial deism nullifies our separation of church and state.

    In the end, this demand for flag worship and loyalty oaths reveals the sad fact that the people making these demand often don’t understand the Constitution they claim to be defending (and frequently wave around). Worse, flag worshipers actually believe they have the right to demand compliance with their own ignorance, which is how “citizens” like this have so frequently brought about the downfall of some many democratic governments in the past.

    I’m not sure if ironic or simply facile, but the oath these guys are demanding ends with the phrase: “… liberty and justice for all” Only a flag worshiper would tack on the end: “Except YOU… You can go somewhere else.”

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 07/11/2019 - 08:59 pm.

      Great point, Paul. I always enjoy reading your take. Everyone always forgets that the vast majority of the founding father’s were, in today’s terms, agnostic. The ‘under God’ theocratic takeover is dangerous to a functioning democracy.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/11/2019 - 09:14 am.

    I would take issue with Mr. Tanick’s claim the decision to drop the pledge was met with “universal” disapproval. In fact a minority of loud protesters and media attention has focused on flag worshipers, but that in no way indicates general attitudes or opinions in the community. While there were many flag worshipers at the council meeting for instance, a significant percentage of them didn’t appear to be residents of SLP, and many other residents were also in attendance.

    It’s not scientific but a poll currently running on SLP Next Door currently has 340 responses: 47% Believe the pledge should be said, 34% say it should not, and 17% don’t care either way. Those percentages seem to rather stable as more people “vote”. I would guess that senior residents are under-represented in this “sample” but still, flag worship hardly has any kid of overwhelming support.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/11/2019 - 09:42 am.

    Not of over-post but as a resident of SLP I’ll share my perspective, briefly.

    Personally I agree with Ventura, I don’t think loyalty oaths or flag worship have any place in our civic spaces. However, I’m not apposed to a little civic ritual once and while, I wouldn’t necessarily have pushed for an end to the practice. As an Atheist I’ve been surrounded by ceremonial deism and religious ceremonies that I routinely opt out of for decades, no one is going to make me recite this pledge.

    Nevertheless once made, I support the city council’s decision. More importantly, I now vigorously appose the effort to reinstate it not so much because I’m against the pledge, but because I’m against dictatorial control of my government and civic processes. I don’t believe these flag worshipers represent any majority of my fellow citizens, and I KNOW they don’t represent the principles my country is based on.

    For me at THIS point it’s about making sure that dictatorial, divisive, and intolerant people don’t control my government or dictate civic polices and procedures.

    Listen, these people have literally turned the pledge (and by extension the flag itself) into a ideological weapon. They’ve managed to turn a symbol of unity into a symbol of division and exclusion. That’s not the American I believe in.

  12. Submitted by David Lundeen on 07/11/2019 - 08:52 pm.

    It’s non-news events like this which have no substantial basis in reporting which give power to demagogues. Without fail, Trump tweeted about this to ‘prove’ to his base, through the verbal garbage that leaves his mouth, that he actually cares about them. He doesn’t, and every single policy decision of his proves this.

    Reporting on this issue throughout the local and national media chose how contemptible and unimaginative the media has become. Why hasn’t the media published article upon article how about the fact that Donald Trump hasn’t even read the Constitution? Isn’t that a better summation of civic pride than a simple pledge of allegiance?

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/12/2019 - 09:28 am.

    Just to give you some idea how toxic these flag worshipers are, you can go look at the City of Saint Louis Park facebook page:

    https://www.facebook.com/stlouispark/

    They are flooding every announcement be they about bees or bike bridges with attacks, threats, and intimidation. It’s kind of funny that the only ones in the room behaving like Russian trolls are the self proclaimed “patriot” waving the flag and reciting the pledge. If you’re an immigrant you can go home, if you’re a citizen who’s lived here his or her entire life- you can go live somewhere else if you don’t want to worship our flag as they dictate. With “patriots” like this who needs enemies?

    In fact one of the flag worshipers in there actually says that as far as he’s concerned, the people of SLP (at least the ones that support the city council) are Taliban enemy combatants. Seriously, the only ones acting like Taliban are the flag worshipers.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/12/2019 - 09:43 am.

    Sorry,

    I forgot to mention that you can note that almost none of the flag worshipers attacking SLP on FB are from SLP, I have found a single one. And you’ll notice that they’re NOT being well received by those of us who actually live here.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/15/2019 - 03:22 pm.

      Many of this same crew parachuted in to the Eastern Carver County School Board last month to complain that by hiring a couple of Muslims to do some equity work that they were promoting Sharia law or some such nonsense. Again, nary a resident of the district among the most strident of them.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/15/2019 - 08:59 pm.

    So the SLP City Council just voted to start reciting the pledge again, twice a month.

    While this disappointing for those of us who supported their original decision, the sad fact is they had little choice. The flag worshiping crowd tonight was bigger and angrier than the last time, and there’s no telling how long this would go on. It was impossible to conduct city business, and likely would be impossible for weeks.

    I’m not just hurling insults when I report that this crowd was hostile, ignorant, racists, and xenophobic. There were MAGA hats galore, and one guy had an American flag with Trump’s face on it. When immigrants were mentioned this crowd booed and demanded they go “home”. When diversity was mentioned, the crowd booed, shouted: “They’re not Americans!”, and started chanting: “USA!”. When Anne Mavity tried to discuss the separation of church and state, the crowd chanted: “Communist” and drowned her out. At the end, after the vote, some flag people got into a scuffle with some SLP residents and some volunteers from the Senate District 46 DFL had to step in and diffuse the situation.

    It’s sad to watch a mob like this take over a city council meeting (none, not ONE single person I talked to was from SLP) and essentially force their agenda through, but there you have it. Looking down the road it’s hard to see how this ends well without reinstating the pledge. As adamant as I am that these self proclaimed “patriots” are toxic haters, and that the pledge is empty flag worship pretending to patriotism, it’s not worth driving this thing into a violent confrontation. Ten minutes after the vote council was back on track, and meeting as per it’s agenda items, there was simply no other reasonable way to get there.

    • Submitted by Susanne Adler on 07/16/2019 - 10:35 am.

      While I supported the original decision, I support the City Council’s strategy of removing our city from the controversy, choosing the path of practicality, and focusing on the work of our strategic priorities. I estimate two-thirds of the Council Chamber was filled with St Louis Park residents who came to support the City Council whatever they did. I was especially proud of our councilmembers as they made their statements regarding their decision to move forward. Their comments were heartfelt, respectful, and called out the hypocrisy of the protesters. Councilmember Mavity called out the protesters for not following the flag code regarding articles of clothing and stated she was sure they did not mean to disrespect the flag when they did. Mavity also discussed the important work St Louis Park was doing on the strategic priorities including climate change. Her comments were met with a protester yelling that her “comments are menopausal” and “boring.” Councilmember Rog challenged people “to take the energy for civic engagement back to your own communities. Try to make a difference there, however you want to do it.” Mayor Spano called out the disrespect from out-of-towners, Councilmember Brausen questioned whether “liberty and justice for all’ should apply to a city being able to determine what is on their agenda. Councilmember Brausen also challenged Fox News to begin every program with a recitation of the Pledge. This seems like a valid point considering the role Fox News has played in the rhetoric.

      All mentioned that the protesters’ energy spent on St Louis Park should be taken back to their own cities and that St Louis Park will continue to work on the strategic priorities such as being a leader in racial equity and inclusion in order to create a more just and inclusive community for all, continue to lead in environmental stewardship, providing a broad range of housing and neighborhood-oriented development, providing a variety of options for people to make their way around the city comfortably, safely and reliably, and creating opportunities to build social capital through community engagement. Real actions over words are what matters.

      To those commenting on social media that “St Louis Park caved to terrorists”, I have one response, where were you? Councilmember Rog said it best, “We don’t need to stay at the epicenter of a manufactured standoff about what it means to be a good American. We know who we are.” I am proud to be a member of this community.

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