Three Baltimore County Fire Department recruits on Thursday night stood, but did not salute, during the national anthem at their graduation ceremony. After becoming aware of public concerns and consternation, the fire department clarified: The recruits who didn’t salute did so because of their religion.
Three members of the 113th recruit class are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Elise Armacost, spokeswoman for the department, clarified in a Facebook post late Thursday night. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are prohibited from displays of national allegiance, Armacost wrote.
“They are successful graduates with a commitment to public service,” she wrote in the Facebook post.
Armacost said she could not say for sure who started raising concerns about the three graduates who did not salute, but that people “piled on” on social media, including Facebook.
A Facebook post describing the incident at the graduation ceremony was met largely with shows of support, and community members saying they were glad the Fire Department was respecting the three graduates or commenting that a person’s faith should not matter when they are performing public service.
Only a small minority of Facebook commenters were upset or angry that the three recruits did not salute the flag.
“This is certainly not the first time that we’ve had Jehovah’s Witnesses as fire department members,” Armacost said in a later interview. “And it has absolutely no bearing on their service to Baltimore County.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christian, but not aligned with mainstream Christianity. Jehovah’s Witnesses view saluting the flag of any nation as an act of worship, according to McKell Miller, a regional spokesman for the organization.
“We want people to understand is that we’re not trying to make a political statement. We’re not some group trying to disrespect the government or disrespect the country we live in, we make a point to pray for our governmental leaders,” Miller said. “Even though governments have authority, we’ve already given our allegiance to our God.”
Miller said the organization is appreciative of how Baltimore County handled the reaction and attention that was drawn to the three recruits who did not salute.
“We appreciate the support they gave to the three public servants, because that’s what they are. We also applaud the courage for the personal decision that [the recruits] made,” Miller said.
Twenty-six graduates were recognized Thursday night at Loch Raven High School. Armacost said the graduates did have station assignments, and that she’d be sharing those assignments online later in the day.
Armacost said that when she was aware of some people expressing concerns online, she wanted to show support for all of the graduates, including the three who did not salute because of their faith.
“They’ve completed this program successfully and are excited to start their careers. It was important to us that they know the department was behind them,” she said.