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Posted at 11:21 AM ET, 02/24/2010

Passions high over the Pledge

By Valerie Strauss

At a school board meeting in Marion County, Fla., last year, World War II veterans packed the audience to protest a move to drop a requirement in the Student Code of Conduct that kids must stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Get the hell out of Marion County,” 85-year-old James Phillips said to those who didn’t want to stand for the pledge, as quoted by

Schools Superintendent Jim Yancey agreed to keep the requirement -- even though the school is not legally allowed to discipline any student for not standing. So now, under a section called “Student Responsibilities,” the code now has a provision that reads:

“To act in a manner which preserves the dignity of patriotic observances, including standing for the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem by following the guidelines established by the United States Congress in 36 U.S.C. 172 and 4 U.S.C. 4.*”

I recount this episode -- and the most recent one in Montgomery County, where a 13-year-old girl was disciplined for not standing for the pledge -- as a reminder of the deep passions that have fueled this controversy for decades.

Much of the legal tangling has been over the words “under God,” which were added to the pledge in 1954 and which have been challenged ever since as promoting religion. When he signed the law to add the words, then president Dwight Eisenhower said, “In this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

The girl at Roberto Clemente Middle School, who was escorted out of the room and sent to the counselor’s office for refusing to stand--asked her lawyers not to reveal her personal reason for doing so.

Ajmel Quereshi, her attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said he would normally be happy to discuss the reasons but is complying with her request.

That is her right under the First Amendment.

(A reader yesterday blasted me for not including what the rights of the amendment are, so: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”)

But putting the law aside, the question is whether the Pledge of Allegiance should be recited every day in schools.

What exactly do children take away from a daily recitation of the pledge? Are they taught about what pledging allegiance to their country actually means?

Most apparently don’t; during the No Child Left Behind era, social studies took a back seat to math and reading and test preparation. The 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress -- a standardized test often called the nation’s report card -- had gloomy results: Only 24 percent of fourth-grade students and 27 percent of 12th graders scored at the proficient level in civics.

I asked Quereshi whether he thinks public schools should ask students to go through the exercise of reciting the pledge and singing the National Anthem every day. His response:

“I don’t think that I or the ACLU has a specific position about whether the daily recitation of the pledge is necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. Certainly the ACLU appreciates and understands why some people would say to say the pledge. Especially in unsettling times, patriotism runs high and people would want the security of the communal feeling of being part of a country and the rich history of the United States.

“I think the ACLU’s point is that part of that rich history is the United States Constitution and the First Amendment, and among the protections the First Amendment provides is the right to dissent. And so in this case if the child wants to sit peacefully without disturbing anybody else during the pledge, we should respect the constitution ... and respect what the flag stands for.”

There's more that we should do. We need to bring civics education back to the schools so that kids understand what they are saying, why they are saying it, and why they don’t have to say it if they don’t want to.

Someone said to me this morning, “We all said the Pledge when we were kids and didn’t stop to think about it.”

Well, yes, we did. That’s not exactly something to be proud of. Besides these are different times -- and it is really time that we recognize that kids need to know more than how to take a test.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 24, 2010; 11:21 AM ET
Categories:  Civics Education  | Tags:  civics education  
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Only in America. 13-year-old girl with a lwayer. These old geezers need to get a life. Who cares. Does it make you a patriot if you stand? Let the girl sit if she wants. Worry about more important stuff.

Posted by: uncivil | February 24, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm an 8 years Navy vet ('74-'82) with combat time. It was that service that maintains your right to NOT pledge to anything. Service members are sworn to protect the Constitution. And it's every American's right to make use of the protections it affords you.

Posted by: jckdoors | February 24, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I do not think the Pledge of Allegiance should be dropped from schools, for any reason, so long as it remains a voluntary exercise.

There are many reasons for choosing not to participate. Religious beliefs (Jehova's Witnesses), not being a US Citizen (contrary to what many think, it is possible to be a legal immigrant without being a U.S. Citizen), and many others.

That said, the law is very clear. Students shall not be required to recite the pledge. Students shall not be punished for exercising this right. Students shall not be embarrassed by the teacher or harassed by others for exercising this right. That includes quietly sitting down while other people stand, as she was not being disruptive. What part of that is so hard to understand? It is a RIGHT of the student to choose to participate or not participate. It is a right that no teacher, parent, principal, or police officer can take away, as it is guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

I would never skip the pledge or refuse to stand for the National Anthem. But I choose to say the pledge, and it has a lot more meaning when I choose to do it as opposed to being forced to do it. I'm not naive enough to believe that other people may feel differently, and I firmly believe that they have a right to opt-out. This girl clearly did, this girl was more aware of her rights than the teacher, and this girl exercised those rights. If you don't like it, than change the rules. But in order to do that, you will likely have to get a Constitutional Amendment passed. Best of luck with that.

Posted by: thetan | February 24, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I currently teach in a Maryland middle school after 10 years in high school. This issue has come up in my room several times in the past. In middle school, I explain to the students at the beginning of the year that they DO have the right to not say the PLEDGE. We discuss the topic openly from both sides and I have yet to find a student who feels the desire to refuse. In high school, I did the same and in only a few situations did a student refuse. I would honor their request if they wrote a short essay explaining their reasons for not saying the Pledge. You see, most of the students who "refuse" the Pledge are doing so not for political or religious beliefs, but rather to bring attention to themselves - to rebell. After asking a simple request for an honest essay to explain to me their reasons almost always ended up with the student standing for the Pledge the next day. This issue can become a very in depth, teachable moment, and I am pretty certain has become a topic in many Social Studies classes throughout the states. Our students need to understand WHAT their rights are as well as WHY they have these rights and HOW these rights are protected. This should not be made into a circus.

Posted by: gonchpup | February 24, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

People have to prove they're patriotic. I love my country more than you! What are you, a terrorist? Stand up! Why do you even have to have all this stuff at school? It's like hearing the national anthem before baseball games like the President is about to get inaugurated or something.

Posted by: uncivil | February 24, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

"I would honor their request if they wrote a short essay explaining their reasons for not saying the Pledge."

Why should a student have to explain their constitutional protect right to order to exercise it? Who cares why they're doing it? In fact, what you're doing is intimidating students into reciting the pledge, even if they don't want to. it's not a "teachable moment," it's bullying.

Posted by: RedBirdie | February 24, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

The student should have to explain their reasons for refusing because, depending on the reason, there might not be any violation of their constitutional rights.

You don't have a constitutional right to ignore your teacher's requests, or to refuse to answer a question in class. You do have the right not to be compelled to do anything against your political or religious beliefs.

In this case, I find it very hard to believe that this kid has some sort of deeply held beliefs that prevent her from saying the Pledge. The incident happened on some random Wednesday in the middle of the school year. Was this the first time she'd ever been asked to stand for the Pledge in this class? Was the teacher unaware of her beliefs?

I suppose it's possible that the teacher is a bully who decided to make an example of some poor Jehovah's witness or anarchist, but it seems more likely that the kid was being a wise-ass. 13-year-olds with parents who bring ACLU lawyers to the principal's office, in my experience, tend to be wise-asses.

I just wish we could get someone other than the ACLU lawyers to comment on the real facts.

Posted by: athena2 | February 24, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad the girl is not explaining because it is None of Our Business. It is her choice whether or not to pledge allegiance and to stand to do so.

I don't care if she is a Jehovah's Witness (that was the basis for the original Supreme Court rulings, as Jehovah's Witness kids were being singled out and harassed for not pledging, which would have violated their family's religion). I don't care if she had an embarrassing stain on the back of her pants and didn't want to stand up. I don't care if she did not want to express support for the federal government because of an issue about war, or taxes, or anything else. I don't care if she simply didn't want to do it that day.

The First Amendment protects her rights to make that choice of political expression, according to decades of Supreme Court precedent. There isn't some footnote about all of us evaluating her reasons and passing judgment. It's her choice. And the teacher was ignorant not to know something that basic and to then handle the situation so poorly.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | February 24, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

"You don't have a constitutional right to ignore your teacher's requests"

Umm, yes you do, if the request violates the constitution.

What we have here is effectively a loyalty oath -- you are pledging allegiance to your country -- enforced by a government institution. And the government cannot compel any of us to take that kind of oath (except for certain government jobs). Period, end of discussion. Freedom of speech starts with freedom not to speak.

Refusal to say the Pledge is not a "request" to be "honored" (such a nice, generous government employee, willing to make an exception if someone gives a good enough reason). It's an unqualified right -- a right that belongs to each of us, not to any government institution. And the government doesn't get to judge whether our reasons are sufficiently "deeply held"; the Constitution doesn't just disappear if Mrs. Smith in English class thinks you're being a twit.

So: what we have here is a government representative telling kids that they either need to swear loyalty or do extra work that no one else needs to. That's coersion; yes, very minor in the grand scheme of things, but coersion nonetheless. I think it's a great idea to make it all a civics lesson. But make it a fair one: make everyone write the essay, regardless of whether they choose to say the Pledge or not.

The Pledge means a lot to me. I take its words and meaning very seriously. And I hate to see it cheapened through unthinking mandatory mass recitations.

Posted by: laura33 | February 24, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Isn't anyone concerned that that school administrators didn't know what the law is?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 24, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

We were not sure what our daughter's rights were as a non-American Maryland elementary school student, living here for some years on a family assignment. The patriotism proclamations after 9/11 drove her to a point of deeply resenting the daily pledge of allegiance, singing the US national anthem, and listening to "America - the greatest country in the world" proclamations ad infinitum. We worried about the anger she expressed at home and how any overt behavior and attitude (eye-ball rolling, heavy sighing) might be punished at school. We worked with her to encvourage being respectful as a visitor/guest to honor Americans right and need to celebrate their nation, just as she would want visitors to our country to be respectful. The solution we agreed on: she would quietly make a pledge of allegiance to her own country, with slight modifications to the wording and she would recognize/admire the national anthem(s) as beautiful pieces of music. She has outgrown her resentment as a mature high school freshman living in the DC metro area. Still - we are pleased to know that she would have had some legal protection had she been called out on her attitude.

Posted by: TFMurphy | February 24, 2010 10:57 PM | Report abuse

Your students don't need to justify anything to you -- you are not the arbiter of whose rights are protected. You sound like you want your students to understand our liberties; please explain to them that they are not required to petition you for them.

Posted by: ekorea | February 25, 2010 2:18 AM | Report abuse

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