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Rights, Patriotism and Service: Fourth of July Reflections

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On this Fourth of July, we recognize and celebrate America's birthday and the American Revolution -- a revolution that began in 1775 and that continues today. It is a revolution based on the fact that America as a nation was not created "perfect" but in order to "form a more perfect union."

In 2013, we continue to work on that union -- not always perfectly, not always progressively, not always agreeably -- but always in a manner in which Americans of all positions and persuasions can struggle to make their voices heard and opinions matter. As we consider the current context and recent events, we think that this is an appropriate time to reflect upon rights, patriotism and national service as they relate to that struggle.

Our country was not founded with equal rights but in the search for equal rights. For many, those rights have had to be demanded and earned over time. For example, consider the suffragette movement and the civil rights protests.

The Supreme Court in its most recent decisions took rights two steps forward and one step back. Marriage rights were expanded, affirmative action rights were maintained but toughened, and voting rights were contracted.

The clear winner from the Court's verdicts was states rights. States rights, however, were trumped -- even if it is for just a brief period of time -- by citizens' rights in "the peoples' filibuster" on abortion rights in the Texas State Senate on June 27, the last day the Senate was to be in session for this term.

The Senate was to consider and would have easily passed, given its overwhelmingly Republican majority, an anti-abortion law that would significantly reduce access to abortion in the state. Then, along came what may have been one of the most unusual moments in state legislative history -- the people's filibuster.

This filibuster was about abortion rights. It could have been about any "rights" issue on which there are significant differences of opinion and values.

We want to make it clear that in this instance it was not the issue that mattered -- although it does greatly to those on both sides of the issue. What matters is that the people were given the right to speak about their "rights" and they seized it. As importantly, the State allowed them to do so and adhered to its own rules of engagement.

The official filibusterer in Texas was Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis from Fort Worth who took the floor at 11:18 a.m. to try to stop consideration of this new law before the clock struck 12 midnight -- at which time the Senate would have to adjourn taking no action. This meant that Ms. Davis would have to filibuster for almost 13 hours.

This would have been a difficult feat for any one at any time. But, the Texas State Senate rules made it even more so stating that any one who engaged in a filibuster would have to stand the entire time never leaning on anything, not leave the floor for bathroom breaks, drink nothing, and always stay on topic.

For more than 11 hours, Ms. Davis complied with these rules. Nonetheless, twice during her presentation she was called for violations of other obscure rules and then around 10 p.m., she was called for a third violation. Under normal circumstances, this would have been three strikes and you are out and the filibuster would have ended unsuccessfully. This was not to be a normal time, however. It was to be a transcendent one.

Almost immediately after the third infraction was called on Ms. Davis, her Senate colleagues took the floor and began using a set of parliamentary maneuvers to try to run the clock out till midnight. They did this until about 11:45 p.m. when it looked as if their stalling and delaying tactics were going to fail.

Then came the completely unanticipated and unexpected. The hundreds of abortion rights supporters who had jammed into the upstairs gallery to watch Ms. Davis spontaneously began to applaud and cheer wildly and would not be quieted. By doing so, they extended and became part of the filibuster process. They transformed this into the people's filibuster.

And, believe it or not -- at least for this night in this state house -- the people prevailed. In spite of the efforts of Senate leadership to gavel things to order and get a vote cast, they could not do so.

Ms. Davis, her Democratic colleagues, and those "average citizens" who stood with them acted as patriots. So, too, we should add, are the Republicans who in support of their own beliefs and principles opposed them. This was an example of the democractic process at work and contesting patriots in a peaceful confrontation.

Patriotism is not anyone's exclusive province. It belongs to no individual or group. It can frequently be characterized by complex, contradictory and competing perspectives and positions.

That's the point that Kathy Silverberg, former publisher of the Sarasota Herald Tribune makes in an op-ed piece in which she writes,

"The Fourth of July might be a good time to take a step back, to consider that patriotism is an inclusive term, that it represents a tent big enough to hold divergent opinions, people from a wide variety of backgrounds and traditions, some who wear flag lapels, who fly the American flag from their porch, and some who don't."

A hundred and fifty years ago on July 1 to 3, 1863, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought at Gettysburg. At least 46,000 and maybe more than 51,000 union and confederate soldiers were killed.

Those Americans were all patriots. They paid the ultimate price for our not being able to reconcile differing views of what was right or wrong for this nation in a peaceful manner. They died in service to their country but on different sides. They died fighting for what they thought was right.

On this Fourth of July, we should remember them and understand that our perspectives on what is right, who is a patriot, and what constitutes service may differ but that our cause should not. That must be to work together as citizens to "form a more perfect union."

In doing so, we must heed this famous admonition from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

"It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and the government of the people, by the people, shall not perish from the earth."

There is still much "unfinished work" remaining on this July 4, 2013. The struggle and the revolution continue. And, "we the people" will not always agree on how to proceed. Just as was the case in 1776, however, we are certain that it is a struggle and revolution that we as Americans can win as long as we remember our shared commitment to each other and this nation