The American Legion is withdrawing all financial support for the Morton Grove Park District until a park board member stands for the Pledge of Allegiance or is no longer on the board.
Post 134 Commander Joseph Lampert attended the Oct. 24 park board meeting to confront Commissioner Dan Ashta on his choice not to stand for the Pledge, and to announce the Legion’s decision.
“On behalf of our post, it is with some regret that we fully respect the right of individuals to not stand during the pledge of allegiance,” Lampert said. “All veterans have been willing to lose their lives for that right, and many have. With that being said, while we support that right, we do not accept it.
“Regrettably, we will be withholding funds from the park district until such time that everyone rises for the pledge,” Lampert continued. “We feel that it’s disrespectful to all veterans that have been willing to sacrifice their lives for this country and it is a great dishonor to all servicemen and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and died for this country.”
Post 134 pays $300 to sponsor the Easter Extravaganza, $300 to sponsor the Halloween Family Festival, $1,000 to sponsor the Party in the Park events, and contributes $1,000 toward 4th of July fireworks, according to Lampert.
Ashta responded during his commissioner report, and thanked Lampert for speaking his mind. However, Ashta maintained his position, just as he did on Aug. 15 when he responded to similar concerns from former Village Clerk Eileen Coursey Winkler.
“This section of the agenda says Pledge of Allegiance, and I feel like we’re compelling people to speak,” Ashta said, noting that the First Amendment affords the right to also not talk. “So you either stand up and say it or you don’t, but either way you’re making a statement. If you come to the meeting, you don’t have a choice but to make a statement.”
Ashta said he doesn’t want to make people pledge allegiance to a government they might oppose and want to reform. Likewise, he said people with religious objections should not have to feel isolated or unwanted for not standing.
“I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate to say this is a personal choice, but more of a duty. I have an obligation as an elected official to uphold the constitution,” Ashta said. “I have a sincere, serious relationship with the law. I study law and constitutional law is of particular interest to me. I think the Constitution is what makes this country great and worth making sacrifices for. Countries with weak constitutions usually don’t last.”
Ashta said he believes what he’s doing is right, and tried to reconcile with Lampert by saying both of them are good for the country.
“It really saddens me when I hear people say that they think what I’m doing is disrespectful,” Ashta said. “I do appreciate the sacrifices people have made so that I can be here at this meeting. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I have no objections to people who do stand for the pledge.”
Ashta said he has family members serving in the military, but he also has ancestors who came from oppressive countries. His decision is not light-hearted, he continued.
“I realize that my sitting down might make some people uncomfortable, but it’s the constitutional standard,” Ashta said. “I’m not comfortable sitting down. There’s definitely a part of me that wants to stand up and say it, but I feel like I have a duty to keep this meeting free to anybody.”
Word of the Legion’s protest spread fast, and Coursey Winkler, whose mother serves on the park board, found out shortly after the meeting. She’s calling for Ashta’s resignation before other entities rally behind the Legion.
“He needs to put his pride aside. He is now hurting the park and village, and as an elected official he is the voice of the people,” Coursey Winkler said. “At this time, I do not believe he is speaking for the people. If he is hurting the park he should resign.
“Nobody is asking him to say the pledge, we are only asking that he respect our country and the many people who fight everyday for our freedom, by standing when the pledge is being said. As a lawyer, I’m sure he respects the judge and stands when they enter the courtroom. We are asking that he has the same respect for our flag.
American Legion Post 134 happened to have its monthly meeting immediately after the park board meeting. Lampert said the post began talking about withdrawing support for the park district as soon as Coursey Winkler’s protest was publicized in the media on July 25.
Because the post encompasses more than 800 members from several communities, Lampert said they waited several months to contact many of the less frequent attendees to make sure a majority of the post was in favor of the action.
“We had overwhelming approval, but we wanted to make sure everyone knew about something this drastic,” Lampert said.
Before the post convened its meeting, a couple of Legionnaires spoke their mind.
“The guy (Ashta) is wrong,” said Casey Bachara of Mt. Prospect. “Don’t live under the blanket of our flag and its freedoms without at least standing during the pledge. Everybody has their rights, but there’s common sense respect.”
Paul Kmeicik, of Wood Dale, said politics and patriotism should not mix.
“The Pledge of Allegience is not the platform for opposing a regime,” Kmeicik said. “It’s a matter of respect to your country as a whole. If you’re going to oppose something, do it with your words and talk specifically about the policy or action you oppose.”
Michael Noles, of Wheeling, hopes Ashta changes his mind soon.
“I would be absolutely satisfied if he at least stood like the rest of us,” Noles said. “I know a lot of people who went to Southeast Asia and didn’t come back. That’s why it’s so frustrating to some of us.”
The park board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Nov. 21.