N.M. education chief won’t alter Pledge of Allegiance rule

Monday, August 24, 2009

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s education secretary announced Aug. 21 that the state rule requiring the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited daily in public schools won’t be altered to allow students to opt out.

Secretary Veronica García had been considering amending the rule to say students who didn’t want to participate would be exempted and not face retaliation.

But she said in a statement that adopting the change could create the mistaken “impression that the pledge is not important in New Mexico’s classrooms.”

She said most school districts already have policies in place addressing the issue.

“The department believes that the existing rule and practice in schools respects the rights of all students,” her statement said. “Any issues related to rights of students will be handled at the local school district level.”

School districts without pledge-related policies will be encouraged to adopt them, according to department spokeswoman Beverly Friedman.

The amendment to the Pledge of Allegiance rule had been proposed by the department’s lawyer as part of a broader rules update, in order to bring the rule in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1943 ruling West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette.

The existing rule says, “The Pledge of Allegiance shall be recited each day in each public school within the state.”

The proposed one-sentence amendment read: “… any person not wishing to participate in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance shall, without consequences or retaliation, be exempt from reciting it and need not participate.”

The proposed change was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, and the group’s executive director, Peter Simonson, said Aug. 21 that he was disappointed in García’s decision.

“I think it’s a cop-out not to affirmatively state that students have a First Amendment right not to participate in the pledge,” Simonson said.

Simonson said he knew of past controversies in at least three of the state’s 89 school districts.

He contends the current rule creates confusion because it’s construed by some school districts to mean that individual students are required to recite the pledge each day.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that students may not be forced to say the pledge or to obtain parental authorization to opt out, nor may they be stigmatized, Simonson said.

“This is exactly the niche that the secretary should fill, in providing proper guidance to schools around the state,” Simonson said.

The proposed rule change drew no public comment during a sparsely attended hearing in June. García reopened the comment period for a month on the pledge rule and got more than 600 comments, with most of them opposed to amending the rule, according to the department.

Tags: ,