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Forcing the Flag

Stephen Kobasa taught Catholic school for 25 years. Then he tried to remove the American flag from his classroom.
 
 
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Stephen Kobasa has been a Catholic schoolteacher for 25 years. For the last six years, he has taught English at Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport, CT.

He no longer teaches there.

Here's why.

Kobasa does not believe there should be an American flag in his classroom.

"Everything in the Gospel rejects what flags stand for: boundaries, hatreds, creation of enemies," Kobasa says. "For a Catholic Christian school that holds up the crucifix as a symbol of God's love, the flag can only be a contradiction. The Church can only function with its prophetic voice by standing outside the state."

For the past six years, whenever he found an American flag in his classroom he removed it, he says.

That never caused a problem until this semester, he adds. At a faculty meeting in August, he says, a new policy came down from the board of education at the Bridgeport diocese: The school day would begin with a prayer and a pledge of allegiance.

Kobasa, who is part of the extended community of the Hartford Catholic Worker and Jonah House in Baltimore, knew he would have trouble abiding by that. He hoped to negotiate some compromise.

"I met with the principal, and she said she was aware that I had not been doing the pledge, but that now there would be a problem because it was the policy," he recalls.

"So what I offered was an arrangement by which any students who wanted to make this oath of fealty could do so with a flag that they could have available. But only for the duration of the pledge itself, and then the flag would once again be removed."

The principal, Jo-Anne Jakab, went along, he says.

"She agreed to that," he says. "So I thought that was the end of it."

It wasn't.

"Ten days later, I was called down to her office, at which point she announces that this compromise, which she thought would be acceptable, is not," he recalls. The superintendent of schools, Dr. Margaret Dames, warned that "if I refused to accept the policy, that would be taken as an indication that I no longer wished to work for that school system."

Later, Kobasa asked to meet with the superintendent in her office.

He wished to explain that his action "was a longstanding, faith-based commitment and not a whim of mine or some excuse to be defiant," he says.

On September 30th, he met with Dr. Dames in her office. He says he was given "an edict: My obedience was expected."

Principal Jakab was at the meeting, as well, and, according to Kobasa, she said that "the following Monday there would be a flag in my room and I was expected to leave it there."

Kobasa said he decided to accept the decision "under protest and under duress," and he filed a grievance with his association of schoolteachers.

In his classroom, he attached two quotations to the flagpole.

One was from Paul's Letter to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The other was from Father Thomas Merton: "We must remember that the Church does not belong to any political power bloc."

When Kobasa's teachers' association refused to back him up, however, he realized that his days as at Kolbe Cathedral High may be numbered.

So Kobasa wrote a letter to the head of the diocese, Bishop William Lori.

"Your Excellency: It is with both sorrow and dismay that I write you concerning the issues raised below, but I am convinced that it is my obligation to pursue every possible means of resolving this dispute in a spirit of Christian charity rather than confrontation," the letter began.

Kobasa wrote that to permanently display the flag in his classroom "would be to act against my conscience as a believing Roman Catholic Christian. My teaching can never take its legitimacy from any symbol except the Cross of Christ. To elevate any national emblem to that level would be for me to ignore the fundamental call of Jesus to compassion without boundaries."

Kobasa wrote that the threat of his dismissal "creates the unmistakable impression that national loyalty is being valued over faithful obedience to the Gospel."

He did not get a response from the bishop.

Knowing that his options were running out, Kobasa decided to take a stand.

At a faculty meeting on October 12, he asked to speak. "This is likely to be my last meeting with this faculty," Kobasa remembers saying. "I made it clear that I had never imposed my views on anyone, but that I expected my own conscience to be honored, and since it was not I would have to take action to preserve it."

Kobasa says this was his way "to give the principal some notice that I was not simply going to resign myself to the policy."

The next morning, October 13, Kobasa did not hesitate.

"I went directly to my classroom and removed the flag and brought it to Mrs. Jakab and said I could not have it in the same room with the crucifix which was the image of my faith," he says. "She asked me if I understood the consequence of this. And I assured her I did."

Kobasa was given till the end of the day to leave.

"It was a gift," he says. "I was able to explain to my students what had happened and why I was making the choice I was, and to tell them what a loss it was for me to not be able to continue with them."

Some students "were extremely upset," he says. "I was really stunned by the kinds of testimony I was getting." A few held signs in his defense, including, "Save Mr. Kobasa," he recalls. "I don't know if it was about salvation in the absolute sense, but I felt very good about it."

Principal Jakab, Superintendent Dames, and Bishop Lori could not be reached for comment. When I called them, I was referred each time to Joseph McAleer, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport.

McAleer refused to answer questions but referred me to a statement on the website of the diocese.

Here is the entire statement: "It is with regret that we confirm that Mr. Stephen Kobasa is no longer a member of the faculty of Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport.

It is not our policy to comment on any internal personnel matter. Our Catholic Schools provide a dynamic learning environment in which respect for the opinions of others as well as respect for school property are both key components. The Diocese of Bridgeport has long believed that the American flag is an important fixture in its Catholic School classrooms."

Kobasa and his wife have two daughters, seventeen and fifteen. "Our eldest had to amend her college application to read 'former high school teacher' under father's occupation," he says.

Asked what he is planning to do next, Kobasa says: "I don't know. You got any work? Seriously, I'm just sort of breathing in and breathing out. It's tough for us all. It's an anxious time. The practical terms are not going to be easy. But compared to the sacrifices others have made. . . ."

Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.