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Civil Rights

The Pledge of Allegiance

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“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Those are the words of the original Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy[1] for a juvenile magazine “The Youth’s Companion”. Since then, the Pledge has undergone a few sonorous revisions:

  • In 1924, “my Flag” was replaced by “the flag of the United States of America”;
  • In 1942, with America at war, Congress officially adopted the pledge and required it to be recited in public schools;
  • The first legal challenge came immediately in 1943, with West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette (319 US 624). A Jehovah’s Witness refused to say the pledge arguing it contradicted his religious beliefs. The case went up to the Supreme Court which found for the defendant, ruling that such a requirement would violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments;
  • In 1954, President Eisenhower petitioned Congress that “under God” be added to the Pledge, a change Congress approved.

The Pledge of Allegiance has become more controversial in recent years with the focus falling on the 1954 addition of “under God”. As our nation has grown more secular, the challenges to the Pledge as a form of backdoor proselytization have increased in frequency and vehemence[2].

  • In 1998, there was a challenge brought against the Pledge in Broward County, Florida, which was dismissed from lack of standing on the part of the plaintiff, Dr. Michael Newdow, who was the father of the child in question. The mother did not support the case, claiming their daughter was not an atheist and had no problem with reciting the Pledge;
  • Newdow lodged a second complaint in 2000 after moving with his daughter to Elk Grove, California. The case goes all the way to the US Supreme Court in 2004, which dismisses the case on a technicality without answering it. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously supported the unconstitutionality of the Pledge as an “endorsement of religion” in a 2002 ruling;
  • In 2005, in a separate case, the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals denied a challenge in Virginia against that State’s requirement that the pledge be recited every day in school. The court found the pledge to be a simple patriotic exercise rather than an affirmation of religion, like a prayer;
  • Also in 2005, a US District Court in California finds the Pledge a “coercive affirmation of God” and therefore unconstitutional;
  • In 2009 in Frazier v. Alexandre, the US Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals finds that a parent’s written request is sufficient to have a child excused from reciting the Pledge in class;
  • Rulings in 2010 and 2014 in New Hampshire and Massachusetts both find that the Pledge is a patriotic, not a religious, exercises.

Today, there are five states that do not have an explicit requirement to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Perhaps surprisingly for conservatives, they are not all deep blue, ultra-liberal states with a preference for flag-burning and singing the Internationale rather than reciting the Pledge:

fivestates

In 2011, Wyoming and Iowa both introduced legislation to require the recitation of the Pledge in schools. In Iowa, the bill was never brought to the floor for a vote. In Wyoming, the bill passed the House with a 52-5 majority, but then failed in the State Senate. Opposing Senators argued that as there was no requirement for adults to state the pledge, there should be no requirements for children either.[3]

Going Forward

I grew up in the 1970’s, going through Northern Virginia’s public school system. I remember reciting the Pledge every day as a matter of course. My immigrant parents were happy enough that I should do so; they wanted me to be an American, of course. My Americanization in school in no way detracted from the rest of my cultural heritage that I imbued at home through my family and visits to “the Old Country” to see the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

I understand and respect the desire of parents to transmit their beliefs and their culture to their kids. But while we term culture “baggage”, it is not; nor are people storage closets with limited space. There is no reason why our great American culture cannot coexist along with the traditions of other peoples: on the contrary, we are mutually enriched by them. Furthermore, I respect the constitutionally protected right of people to object to the term “under God”: the rights of agnostics and atheists are as valid as those of Christians. “under God” might also imply an endorsement of monotheism, and I see no reason to oblige our many immigrants of Hindu, Buddhist or other pantheistic religions to make such an endorsement.

Nonetheless, the state has a legitimate and recognized interest in fomenting the patriotism of her citizens and developing a sense of civic virtues and responsibilities in future generations. This is true as much of current citizens as of future citizens; in other words, the children of immigrants. American nationalism is an inclusive nationalism, the proverbial melting pot of history: but it is nationalism nonetheless. To argue that the immigrant parents might be offended is not, to me, a sufficient argument to outweigh the interests of the state and the public. They ought to be aware of the conditions that the state imposes in its public school system and the expectation that immigrants will become good citizens. Those people that object to the requirement can take their children to the many excellent private schools in the country, which law would exclude from this requirement.

I support a universal recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in our public school system. However, to accommodate the growing number of faiths in our country, as well as those who eschew traditional religion or any religion at all, I would ask Congress to endorse both the modern form of the Pledge as well as the pre-1954 version:

Modern version:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Pre-1954 version:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Let the kids and the parents decide which version they feel most comfortable with.

Good luck getting it through our Tea Party, fundamentalist Congress with any Republican support. There are probably a good many Democrats that wouldn’t support such a measure either, but for the opposite reason. Yet they should both support such a measure: it is the right thing for the country. And that should be the only thing that matters to our legislators.

pledge


 

Sources and Notes

[1] Accreditation was once disputed between Bellamy and James B. Upham. Today, scholars seem to agree on the former.

[2] “Pledge of Allegiance Fast Facts,” CNN Library, updated:  26 April 2015

[3] Crystal Goss, “Pledge of Allegiance in Schools: Not Required in These Five States,” Takepart, 13 August 2012

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