Angry Virginia legislator withdraws, then revives, mandatory pledge bill

Friday, February 16, 2001

A Virginia General Assembly bill to make the recitation of the Pledge of
Allegiance a required part of every student’s morning appeared doomed after its
sponsor stormed out of a committee meeting calling some members “spineless
pinkos.” But that wasn’t the end of it.

State Sen. Warren Barry, R-Fairfax County, objected to efforts to soften the
mandatory suspension of students who disrupt the pledge. Barry withdrew his
bill after the House Education Committee amended the bill to allow school
districts to determine punishment of students who violate the law.

“We got a bunch of pinkos on that committee that nibbled away on that bill to
the point where it doesn’t mean anything,” Barry said.

The measure had passed the Senate overwhelmingly last month and had been expected
to pass the House of Delegates this week before the obstacle that roused Barry’s ire. But after the bill appeared dead for the session, The Washington Post reported, Barry managed late yesterday to attach it to another student-discipline bill.

That combination bill made it through the education committee and now heads for the Senate. The Post reported that Barry expects it to pass.

Barry’s bill would require Virginia students to say the Pledge of
Allegiance each school day but allow those with religious or philosophical
objections to sit or stand silently during the recitation.

Barry, an ex-Marine, crafted the bill after he visited several schools and
noticed that many students were not reciting the pledge. When he asked some of
them why they didn’t, they said they didn’t feel like it.

His original bill only made exceptions for students with religious
objections. He reluctantly agreed to exempt students with philosophical ones.

“To say that suspension for a kid who shows disrespect for the American flag
isn’t justified just doesn’t sit well with me,” he said.

State law already requires public schools to honor a moment of silence.
Another bill before the General Assembly this term would require them to post
the national motto “In God We Trust.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which unsuccessfully challenged the
moment of silence measure in federal court last year, objected to Barry’s
original bill but has remained neutral on the current proposal. But ACLU
associate director Richard Ferris said the group might challenge the law
depending on how school districts interpret “philosophical objections.”

The U.S. Supreme Court determined in the 1943 case of West Virginia State
Board of Education v. Barnette
that forcing students to recite the pledge
violates free speech and the establishment clause.

Justice Robert Jackson wrote that the First Amendment expressly prohibits
public officials from bolstering patriotism by compelling flag salutes and
pledge recitations.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that
no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics,
nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to
confess by word or act their faith therein,” Jackson wrote.

Del. William W. “Ted” Bennett, D-Halifax County, said he supported fostering
patriotism with a daily pledge recitation, but he had concerned that Barry’s
bill pushed the matter too far.

“I’m afraid this bill starts to go over the cliff in moving from foster to
force,” Bennett said.

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