Utah lawmakers urge governor to sign pledge of allegiance bill

Wednesday, March 8, 2000

(As expected, Republican Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt signed the “Patriotic Education Act” on March 13.)

Ignoring federal court precedent, the Utah Legislature has sent to the governor a bill that would require all public school students to recite the pledge of allegiance in class or obtain written parental consent not to.

The “Patriotic Education Act,” sponsored by Republican state Sen. Leonard M. Blackham, states that all students shall recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag “at the beginning of the day in each elementary and secondary public school in the state.” The bill further states that a student can only be excused from reciting the pledge “upon written request from the student’s parent or legal guardian.”

The bill also includes a notation from the state’s Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel that a “limited review of this legislation raises no obvious constitutional or statutory concerns.”

Stephen Clark, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, however, says the bill fails on several counts to pass constitutional muster. Clark said he sent a letter yesterday urging Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt to veto it.

“The students have the right to refuse to recite the pledge, not the parents,” Clark said. “Also, the Supreme Court has noted that the free-exercise rights of students matter, and has made clear that there are people who may have a problem with reciting the pledge for religious reasons.”

In 1943, the high court considered and invalidated a West Virginia law mandating the recital of the pledge by public school students. That state law was challenged by a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses on free-speech and religious-liberty grounds. Religious tenets of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith proscribe believers from admiring graven images.

Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, concluded in part that: “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

“Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing,” Jackson wrote. “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.”

In his letter to Leavitt, Clark stated that beyond court precedent, the First Amendment “gives all Americans a right to express their opinion on legitimate public policy matters,” which “implies also a right not to express opinions they do not believe, even on matters that go to the core of our democratic principles.”

Lindsey Pitcher, a press aide for Leavitt, said the governor has yet to look at the bill and has until March 21 to sign legislation. Pitcher said she was unaware of Leavitt’s ever taking a stand for or against this type of legislation.

A call to Blackham’s office about the ACLU’s complaint concerning the bill was not answered.

The Alaska Legislature is considering a bill similar to Utah’s. The Alaska Legislature, however, has two versions of a pledge bill and on March 6, the House rejected the Senate’s version.

The Alaska House version, House Bill 192, states that the public schools “shall require that an appropriate flag exercise be held regularly in each classroom” and at other school functions, and those students “may recite the following salute to the flag of the United States or maintain a respectful silence.”

The state Senate’s version, SCS CSHB 192, was reworked in a Senate Affairs Committee to state only that school officials “shall require that the pledge of allegiance be recited daily.”

Richard Schmitz, an aide to state Rep. Jeannette James, who sponsored the original version of the bill, said the pledge bill now goes back to the Senate for more consideration.

Schmitz said the Alaska ACLU has mounted opposition to the passage of both versions.

James said that despite ACLU opposition and the debate over wording, some form of the bill “without a doubt” would be sent to the governor. James added that she was “sure” Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, would sign it.