Free expression, not forced patriotism

As the country faces pressing challenges abroad, battle lines are being drawn in public schools over the meaning of U.S. citizenship. For students in nine Western states, it almost became illegal to recite the words “under God” during a teacher-led Pledge of Allegiance. In Minnesota, some legislators aspire to promote reciting the pledge and teaching flag etiquette. Certainly, the stars and stripes are a proud symbol of our heritage. To coerce its praise, however, demeans the values it stands for – free speech and free expression. Efforts to mandate the pledge should be resisted.

The legal issue began when an atheist in California challenged the recitation of the pledge in his daughter’s elementary school. In June, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the pledge to be unconstitutional in public schools. The controversy was in the news again this week after the court stayed its ruling, allowing the California school district to keep the phrase “under God” in the pledge until the Supreme Court reviews the case.

In Minnesota, pledge legislation is a hot-button issue. Proponents of a mandated pledge argue it would encourage patriotism and teach students about U.S. history. Opponents, including former Gov. Jesse Ventura – who vetoed a pledge bill last year – say students should be allowed to freely choose how they express themselves. “Patriotism comes from the heart,” Ventura said.

He’s right. Use of such ham-fisted methods to teach students about civic pride and the country’s history seems to have done little to enlighten young people about U.S. government and history. Its use only serves to fuel a form of national identity based more on machismo and less on ideals of freedom, liberty and justice. As Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said, requiring the pledge “is not only inconsistent with our philosophy of how a democracy works, but also it unfortunately sends a message to both our allies and our adversaries that we are insecure in our degree of confidence about our commitment to liberty.” We agree.