Pledge bill raises questions of rights, legality

Libby George

School children expressing loyalty each morning to the flag is seen by some as an American duty – but others see it as an affront to the very ideals for which it stands.

It might soon be a required practice in Minnesota schools. Legislation in both the Minnesota House and Senate would mandate school children recite the pledge every morning, allowing students who oppose to choose against participating.

Although little dissent is heard from the Legislature, many still assert the law would violate First Amendment rights.

“I just don’t think the state should mandate rote patriotism,” said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. A member of the Senate Education Committee, Pappas said she voted for a revised version of the bill that allows school districts to opt out because she thought the bill would make it to a floor vote anyway.

Pappas said this did not mitigate her concerns.

“When children are very young, they want to go with the crowd,” Pappas said. “We were very concerned they would be ostracized.”

Sen. Mady Reiter, R-Shoreview, who introduced a pledge bill in the Senate that died in committee, said there is nothing wrong with patriotism.

“I have always felt that in America we take freedom and everything that goes with it for granted,” Reiter said. She added that provisions in the bill that passed allow school districts to choose not to mandate the pledge and also allow students to opt out.

Similar legislation was passed last year and vetoed by Gov. Jesse Ventura. Current Gov. Tim Pawlenty voted in favor of the bill as a legislator and has said he “looks forward” to the new bill.

Question of legality

Though the pledge bill in Minnesota is gaining steam, similar legislation has not been historically legal.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 the government does not have the right to compel people to salute the flag or to coerce people to pledge allegiance.

The right included in the Minnesota bill to opt out ensures its legality but some say not participating is a questionable option for children.

“If you put that into the context of the everyday school setting, there’s enormous pressure on any individual student to recite the pledge whether that child wishes to or not,” said Mark Rahdert, associate dean of Temple Law School and a First Amendment expert. “It probably meets the letter of the law, but Ö it’s still effectively coercing.”

Audrey Johnson, a member of the Minneapolis School Board, said although the board has yet to take an official position, she was equally troubled by the bill.

“I think it is outrageous,” Johnson said. “To force students to say the pledge is a violation of the First Amendment.”

She said that although the bill allows students to opt out, this is “in the same category as school-sanctioned prayer.”

Rights implications

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, said although the bill is likely constitutional, the failure of the public and legislators to question the issue is cause for concern.

“These are all related, these

anti-civil liberties bills,” Samuelson said. “I think that people believe wrongly that if they give up civil liberties they gain freedom, and there’s not one scintilla of truth to that.”

Marie Castle, Atheists for Human Rights communications director, said the ease with which the pledge bill is going through the Legislature is indicative of bad times to come for civil rights.

“Anyone who objects to it will be considered antipatriotic, anti-god, anti-American pie and everything else,” Castle said. “It negates the whole idea of a free country.”

Johnson was also concerned about what would come after the bill’s passage.

“This is one thing, and the next thing down the pipe could be anything,” she said.

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]