Punishing students who won’t recite pledge isn’t patriotism

Saturday, August 15, 1998

Patriotism is the product of pride and personal commitment. Yet an increasing number of legislators and school administrators would like to supplant individual beliefs with their own ideas of what it is to be patriotic.

The most visible of these efforts, of course, is the current push to amend the Constitution to permit Congress to outlaw the burning of the American flag. It’s political posturing at its worst: Flag burnings are rare and there certainly is no justification for subtracting from the Bill of Rights for the first time in history.

In the shadow of the flag controversy, there has been a less visible movement to shore up respect for another American institution: the Pledge of Allegiance.

The pledge was a reassuring ritual in America’s schools for many of us as we grew up. And when we took the time to think about the words we were reciting, we were reminded of the truly special nature of a nation committed to “liberty and justice for all.”

But what if someone is troubled by the recitation of the pledge? What if some of the words fly in the face of strongly held personal beliefs?

Recent events suggest there’s a price to pay for refusing to participate in the pledge in public schools:

  • In January, a 16-year-old in Live Oak, Fla., refused to stand at school and recite the pledge because he was angry about the way the government has treated his father, a Marine Corps veteran with cancer. He was suspended for a day.
  • In March, a 13-year-old Jehovah’s Witness refused to say the pledge at his Seattle middle school for religious reasons. The boy’s teacher ordered him to stand outside for 15 minutes. It was raining.
  • In April, a 16-year-old in San Diego refused to recite the pledge in class at her high school. The student, who says she does not believe in God, then was ordered by the teacher to stand alone and say the pledge. She refused and was ordered to serve detention.

All of these incidents could have been avoided. In a decision handed down at the height of World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court held that requiring children to say the Pledge of Allegiance when doing so violates strongly held personal beliefs is to effectively deny freedom of worship and freedom of speech.

The court conveyed a clear message in that 1943 ruling: “There is no doubt that, in connection with the pledges, the flag salute is a form of utterance. Symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas. The use of an emblem or flag to symbolize some system, idea, institution, or personality, is a short cut from mind to mind.”

Students in a public school have the right to sit quietly while the rest of the class recites the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge, written by a minister in 1892, doesn’t carry quite the same weight as 45 words written a century earlier.

Those words begin with “Congress shall make no law …”