Religion in Education: the Pledge of Allegiance
Since 1892, our country’s expression of loyalty and nationalism has been the Pledge of Allegiance. Written by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, our nation’s pledge started out being published in the September issue of The Youth’s Companion, the Reader’s Digest of the day. Bellamy was the chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association, and as such was in charge of planning a Columbus Day ceremony for the public schools. Part of the ceremony he planned involved a flag raising ceremony, while the children recited his pledge.
The original words of the pledge as written by Bellamy are as follows: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. ” In 1923, the National Flag Conference changed the words from “to my flag” to “to the flag of the United States of America. ” Bellamy did not like this change, but he was ignored. The pledge was edited once again in 1954 after Bellamy’s death after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus to include “Under God.
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While Bellamy was not alive to see this change, his granddaughter made a statement that he would not have approved of the change. After these two changes, we have the pledge that is now recited in almost every public school in the country: “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. ” Now that the phrase “under God” was added to the pledge, it took on a whole new role. Instead of just being an expression of loyalty and nationalism, it also became a public prayer.
The justification for the addition of this phrase was given by the House with the following statement: “From the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God” This did not sit well with many American’s, especially considering that their rights to practice their own religion were outlined clearly in the nation’s Constitution. This simple little phrase started controversies for years to come, especially in classrooms all around the country.
Before we can begin to dissect the modern day issues regarding the pledge, we have to understand the history of the issue. The first lawsuit regarding the pledge was Minersville School District v Gobitis. Lillian (12) and William (10) Gobitis were expelled from their public school because they refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This lawsuit took place in 1940, before the words “under God” were even added to the pledge. The Gobitis children were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and believed that pledging their allegiance to a flag went against command of Scripture.
Because attending school at their age was required under law, the parents had to pay for the children to be enrolled in private school. Because of the financial ramifications of this punishment, they decided that a lawsuit was appropriate. The Supreme Court decided not to change the policy that requires the pledge be recited by students in public schools, even after the Gobitis case. After the decision was revealed, there was an outcry that the decision was unconstitutional. However, the decision would not be overturned until 1943 with West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette.
After the court’s decision in the Gobitis case, the state of West Virginia started to require that all schools in the state require their students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and that refusal to recite the pledge would result in expulsion. If the student needed to be expelled, the child would be considered “unlawfully” absent until they were readmitted. They could not be readmitted until they complied with the law. Parents were being forced to pay a fine and could face jail time if their child was “unlawfully absent.
In West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette in 1943, the Supreme Court overturned the decision they made in the Gobitis case, making it unlawful for the state to force students to recite the pledge. The Supreme Court focused the decision more on the First Amendment and freedom of speech, that the state did not have the power to force anyone to say anything. They did not address the issue that forcing the recital of the pledge could infringe on the Free Exercise Clause by affecting particular religious beliefs because the phrase “under God” still had not been added at the time this court case occurred.
Surprisingly, no case regarding the phrase “under God” reached the Supreme Court until 2004, with Elk Grove Unified School District v Newdow. In this case, Michael Newdow fights for his daughter’s right to not be required to recite the pledge during school because it violates the Establishment Clause by forcing her to admit to a belief in God. Newdow wanted a statement from the court that the phrase “under God” in the pledge violates the First Amendment and the Free Establishment Clause, as well as to judge the California state requirement of students to recite the pledge as unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court ruled against Newdow, and when he tried to repeal this decision, the case was dropped because he was not the legal guardian of the daughter he was defending. Obviously, the Pledge of Allegiance has remained a controversial topic in our country’s Supreme Court because of its blurry line regarding the First Amendment and the Free Establishment Clause. Every day, there are new arguments made by the students in our public schools for and against the pledge, but it remains a very important part of routine for many students.
Now that we understand the history of this issue, we can see how it affects us in the present day. Some noticeable recent news stories are that every day states and school systems are changing their policies on the pledge in their classrooms. On April 24th, 2012, the Winston Salem Forsyth County School System in Winston Salem, North Carolina decided that its students no longer have to have a religious reason to refuse to recite the pledge during the school day. They can now cite any reason for not reciting the pledge, which puts that school system in line with the state of North Carolina’s guidelines regarding the pledge.
Another interesting news story took place on March 7, 2012 when the state of Utah approved a bill that requires all public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily. After understanding the history of the issue, as well as its place in the present day, we can start to come up with ways to resolve the issue. I think that the most uncontroversial way to deal with the issue of having public school students recite the pledge would be to require the students to recite the pledge, however if a student has a reasonable excuse to refuse to recite it, to allow them to stand silently.
This way, the students who do want to recite the pledge are not having their rights infringed upon, and those who do not are able to respectfully decline. With this in mind, I do think there should be a punishment for students who make scene by refusing to recite the pledge. It is understood that American citizens have the freedom of speech under the First Amendment, so long as they do not infringe on the First Amendment rights of others. If students are allowed to make scene regarding reciting the pledge, they will be infringing on their classmate’s freedom of speech because they won’t be able to peaceably recite the pledge.