Selectman Freitag At Center of Media Circus After Forgoing Pledge Of Allegiance
By: Christopher Kazarian
Inside the lobby of Falmouth Town Hall on the receptionist’s desk is a bouquet of 10 American flags placed in a glass vase this week. At the window of the town clerk’s office are two smaller American flags placed inside a basket holding pens for visitors.
Those national symbols will pale in comparison to the patriotism on display next Monday evening, when scores of residents are expected to come to Falmouth Town Hall, some in military uniform, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance after Acting Chairman Melissa C. Freitag opted not to this week.
That decision has opened the selectman to a wave of attention and criticism, on television, talk radio and Facebook, not seen in her nearly three years on the board. “I’m ready for this to be over,” she said yesterday afternoon. “Most people are accusing me of being a socialist or communist. I have people questioning my sexual integrity. It is quite vitriolic... You should see some of the e-mails I’m getting. Is it upsetting? Yes, it is upsetting. It is a really sad sign of the times that missing a symbolic statement can generate such vitriol.”
Those attacks, many of them personal, have been coming steadily following Monday’s meeting, in which Ms. Freitag assumed the position typically held by Mary (Pat) Flynn, who is recovering from knee surgery.
Skipping The Pledge
Ms. Freitag kicked off the session by reading a poem from the town’s newly appointed poet laureate, Adelaide A. Cummings of Snug Harbor Lane, West Falmouth, after which Selectman Kevin E. Murphy reminded her about the board’s usual routine to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
“New sitting chair I’d rather not tonight,” Ms. Freitag responded, leading to confused looks on her colleagues’ faces.
Since July 2010, under the chairmanship of Brent V.W. Putnam, the board has made a practice of reciting the pledge, though no formal vote was made in open session.
I'm sorry if I offended people, but that was not my intention.
Selectman Melissa Freitag
Both Mr. Putnam and Selectman David Braga said that decision occurred at the board’s annual retreat. “It was a consensus, if you will,” Mr. Putnam said. “Everyone agreed it would be a good idea to start the meetings with the pledge. She [Ms. Freitag] expressed some reservations about the words ‘under God’ and suggested she could not simply speak those words.”
Since that time, Ms. Freitag has at least stood during the pledge. Yesterday, she said she had no ideological reason to purposefully skip it at this week’s meeting. “It was a timing issue,” she said. “I was trying to run a tight meeting and by the time I read the poem it was six after 7 [PM] and we should have been on the second agenda item, so I moved on.”
To those who say she is unpatriotic, Ms. Freitag said, “I wouldn’t be volunteering to serve our town if I didn’t love our country.”
And she was apologetic to those she may have upset. “I’m sorry if I offended people, but that was not my intention,” she said.
Why this has become a media sensation is puzzling to her, but she understands the ramifications. “It’s probably the end of my elected political career in Massachusetts, if there was ever going to be one,” she said.
Board Members Weigh In
Mr. Murphy, who has appeared on several Boston news affiliates to discuss the issue, was disappointed by Ms. Freitag’s choice. “I was just dumbfounded and really taken aback,” he said.
Whether intentional or not, he said, “she doesn’t have the right to stop others from saying the pledge.” And that is what many in Falmouth, and beyond, are most upset about.
“She could have sat down or just stand there and not say it,” Mr. Braga said. “She should respect the fact that the board voted this policy.”
Among those to express dissatisfaction with Ms. Freitag was Robert P. Volosevich Jr. of Falmouth Heights, who lost to her in the selectman’s race three years ago. He was perhaps the catalyst for the media firestorm that hit Falmouth this week, reaching out to news outlets to express his anger at Ms. Freitag.
“I’m furious,” he said late Tuesday morning. “There’s a quote by Ronald Reagan that hits it on the nose for me. He said, ‘If we ever forget that we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under,’ and this is very true today. I don’t care if it’s in local, state or national politics.”
He is one of several who has promised to show up outside Falmouth Town Hall on Monday evening prior to the board’s meeting. At 6:55 PM, five minutes before selectmen begin their public session, State Representative David T. Vieira (R-Falmouth) is inviting residents to a “pause for the Pledge of Allegiance” at the flagpole at Town Hall Square.
On Beacon Hill, Mr. Vieira said, the story is the talk among his fellow legislators. “I’ve had folks coming up to my desk, asking me what is going on in Falmouth,” he said, noting that in the State House the pledge is said at the opening of every formal and informal session of the Legislature.
“My question is why not allow the board to do it, even if she personally chose not to,” he said.
Story Gaining Widespread Attention
He was not surprised at the attention this story is receiving and the support being shown for the simple act of pledging one’s allegiance to the country.
Even those from outside the town’s borders, like Yarmouth Deputy Police Chief Steven Xiarhos, whose son, US Marine Corporal Nicholas G. Xiarhos died in Afghanistan in 2009, are planning on participating in Monday's display of patriotism. “Our American flag means a lot to me as a police officer. I’ve worn it on my uniform every day for 33 years,” he said. “When you lose your son, who went off to fight for his country and never came home—I never saw him since May 15, 2009, when he hugged me and crushed me because he knew he was going to a bad place. Why did he do it? Because he believed in the freedom that the American flag represents. It means a lot to me, and I know it meant a lot to Nick.”
The board will also address the issue at the request of Mr. Putnam, who has asked the Pledge of Allegiance be placed on the agenda. It is scheduled as the first item for public discussion at 7 PM. Before that agenda was even released, Ms. Freitag said she would be willing to have the board say the pledge regardless.
Whether it is enough to dispel the negative opinions of Ms. Freitag being bandied about traditional media and the Internet is unclear. And how it impacts her legacy—she is not running for reelection because she will begin graduate school at Tufts University in August—is also up for question.
“I don’t think even her own constituency appreciates how she went about it,” Mr. Murphy said. “She will be remembered for the one time she sat in as the chairperson and she took the opportunity to not say the Pledge of Allegiance.”