Town official takes a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance

In a town where 51% voted for Trump

By JESSICA CAMPISI AND TONY MARCO, CNN
AP

Melissa Schlag, a selectman in Haddam, Connecticut, kneels for the Pledge of Allegiance during a town meeting on July 30.

(CNN) - Melissa Schlag won't stand for President Trump. And since last month, she won't stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, either.

Around the country, people have used kneeling as a form of silent protest. But in the small town of Haddam, Connecticut, where Schlag is a local official, her refusal to stand during the pledge at town meetings has been met with backlash of its own.

In Haddam, supporting Trump has been more common than opposing him. More than half of Haddam voters -- 51% -- cast ballots for the President in the 2016 presidential election, compared to Hillary Clinton's 43% of the vote, according to state data.

What started as a small gesture quickly garnered a lot of attention. Now, people from across the nation are speaking out against Schlag, and some are calling for her to resign.

But the criticism isn't stopping her. As long as Trump's in office, she says she'll keep kneeling.

"I don't see anything changing," she told CNN. "I don't see me standing up anytime soon."

Why she first chose not to stand

July 16 was the first time Schlag ever knelt for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Earlier that day, Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. During a news conference, Trump stood next to Putin and took the Russian leader's side over his own nation's intelligence community on whether Russia meddled in the 2016 elections.

"I was sick to my stomach," she said. "I could not stand up anymore."

The Helsinki summit, for Schlag, was the straw that broke the camel's back. But she's felt for a long time that Americans should be leaving their feet -- racial inequality, poverty and immigration are just a few items to top her list of reasons why.

And she's always been inspired by Colin Kaepernick, she said. The quarterback knelt for the National Anthem to protest racial and social injustice, and she thought what he did took guts.

But she wanted to kneel during a different ceremony: the Pledge of Allegiance.

The pledge ends by saying, "...with liberty and justice for all."

"I just don't feel that means anything anymore," Schlag said.

She figured she could mirror Kaepernick's actions on a smaller scale. But an audience that she thought would be a dozen people has since grown to thousands.

"This issue has blown up beyond Haddam," she said. "The spread of this tiny, 10-second silent protest across the nation means it's working."

What her critics say

After she first knelt during that July 16 meeting for the town's board of selectmen, Schlag said she didn't get any messages from critics. Schlag is a selectman and sits on the board that serves as the town's executive body.

But at the next meeting, the typically bare room was packed with people. Her kneeling solicited boos and shouts from the crowd as they went through the Pledge, and it didn't stop there. Schlag said her inboxes are flooded with hate mail from people all around the country.

Some are calling for her to step down from her town-funded position.

Connecticut state Sen. Art Linares is among them. While Schlag has a right to protest, he said, she shouldn't be doing it on the town's time.

"I think it's completely disrespectful for an elected official who represents the community to look away from the flag and take a knee, which is what she did," Linares told CNN. "I have called for her to resign from the moment she took a knee."

Stirring the controversy more was a video taken of Schlag calling her town "fascist and racist." Schlag later apologized on Facebook for those comments.

Schlag told CNN she wasn't referring to the entire town when she said that, and she was under a lot of stress.

What her supporters say

Some Haddam residents are standing by Schlag and her decision to kneel, though they are divided on whether it is the proper forum.

"She does have a right to kneel. I don't feel it should have happened at a town meeting because she is being paid to be there," Lizz Milardo, who is another town official, told CNN affiliate WFSB.

One veteran who served in the Air Force said politicians have used veterans as props for a long time.

"[A]re the people screaming about 'VETERANS!' every time they see someone kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance doing all they can to end armed conflict and promote peace?" wrote Kate Hamilton Moser in a letter linked to her Facebook page.

"So kneel. Kneel today, tomorrow, and next week. Kneeling in protest during the Pledge of Allegiance brings awareness to a significant number of issues facing many Americans. Scream about 'VETERANS!' as well. But only after you have done the long, hard work of supporting active duty military and veterans with policy, legislation, and funding to positively impact their lives and to prevent another generation of service members from suffering like I do, like my family did, and countless other families across the country."

Robin Spencer-Klimaszewski, another resident, said she chooses to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. But that doesn't mean her friend can't kneel if she wants to.

"I myself might choose to stand, but I believe it's her right to kneel," she told CNN. "Who are we to tell her not to?"

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized how Moser, a veteran, feels about the kneeling gesture. The article has been updated to correctly reflect her opinion.

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