Forcing students to recite the pledge won’t ensure patriotism

Sunday, January 28, 2001

The age-old fight over how best to inspire patriotism in students has
been reignited in Virginia this week by the introduction of a bill requiring
the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

Should this bill become law, all students in the state will be
required to salute the flag each morning. Anyone who disrupts the pledge will
face suspension.

The law does allow students who object on religious grounds to be
excused from saying the pledge, but only if they bring a note from a religious
leader explaining the objection.

As presently written, this bill is probably unconstitutional. That's
because the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia
State Board of Education v. Barnette
(1943) that compelling
students to recite the pledge violates both the freedom of speech and freedom
of religious exercise guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The court reasoned that requiring students to salute the symbol of
freedom in violation of their conscience makes a mockery of the flag and the
fundamental principles of liberty “for which it stands.”

After all, the pledge culminates with the promise of “liberty and
justice for all.” Surely this liberty includes the freedom not to recite the
pledge on grounds of conscience.

As the court put it: “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.”

Thus, to pass constitutional muster, the Virginia bill must allow for
a broader “opt out” from the pledge. And no note from clergy or anyone else
should be required.

It's unlikely that proponents of this bill are upset by the small
number of students who have conscientious objections to the pledge.

No doubt they are angered and frustrated by kids who ignore the pledge
for no apparent reason. Well aware that they can't be “required” to say the
pledge, some students will slump in their chairs or otherwise show disrespect
during its recitation by their peers.

But railing at students for lack of respect or coercing them to be
“patriots” will only make matters worse.

Even if the Constitution allowed it, no amount of legislation could
inspire true patriotism. Love of country isn't born of rote recitations or
ceremonies, but springs from a sense of pride and admiration for the
institutions and values of our democracy.

That doesn't mean we should abandon the Pledge of Allegiance. Civic
rituals remind us of what it means to be an American; they can and should be
part of educating for citizenship in public schools.

But two conditions should govern the saying of the pledge in

  • First, schools must ensure that participation is voluntary by
    allowing students to opt out. Yes, require them to articulate their reasons.
    And yes, require them to be respectful during the recitation of the pledge. But
    don't violate the spirit of our Constitution by forcing students to mindlessly
    repeat the words.

  • Second, schools must do a much better job of teaching the
    history and meaning of the principles symbolized by the flag before asking
    students to salute it. Saying a bunch of words without understanding their
    significance is a waste of time — and even counter-productive.

Once students appreciate exactly what they are “saluting” when they
salute the flag, the vast majority will say the words with pride and respect.
Moreover, they will understand why some of their classmates may choose to
remain silent.

As they consider the final wording for a law requiring the pledge,
Virginia lawmakers would do well to re-read Jefferson's bill for religious
freedom, passed by their legislative predecessors more than 200 years ago. It
begins with the words: “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free

If we hope to sustain the American experiment, then allegiance to our
flag must come from free minds and willing hearts.