Is the Pledge of Allegiance Truly Voluntary?

The city of Brookline, Massachusetts, recently made headlines when an activist group pushed for the town to ban the Pledge of Allegiance from schools. While the debate has fostered political posturing and grandstanding, it's also raised a serious question: Is the pledge truly voluntary, or is it forced upon unwitting schoolchildren?

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What the Law Says

The Pledge of Allegiance has a colorful and contentious history. It was written in 1892 by the Baptist minister and socialist Francis Bellamy. His intentions are unclear, with some historians suggesting he wrote it to instill patriotism and others viewing it as a marketing scheme to sell flags and magazines.

In the 1930s, West Virginia made reciting the pledge compulsory. Despite protestations by Jehovah's Witnesses for religious reasons, the Supreme Court ruled in 1940 that the West Virginia law regarding the pledge was legal. Three years later, the court reversed itself, making the pledge voluntary. The ruling noted that requiring the pledge violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Since then, the pledge has continued to be a source of contention at schools throughout the country.

The Reality in Schools

While the Supreme Court decreed that the pledge must remain voluntary, children at many schools may believe differently. By its nature, which requires standing, holding a hand over your heart and reciting in unison, the pledge can become easy fodder for peer pressure and bullying. The pressure on students doesn't just come from peers, but also from teachers. While a student may choose to recite the pledge with his or her classmates in order to fit in and avoid attention, there have been many recorded attempts by schools to force the pledge on its students.

For example, San Diego's Fallbrook Union High School District was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1998 for punishing a student who refused to say the pledge. The student was required to stand silently, leave the room or be placed in detention. The case was settled out of court, with the school changing its policy.

States vs. the Court

The Supreme Court's 1943 ruling should protect students who choose not to say the pledge. Yet 32 states have old laws that mention participation and 20 states have laws requiring recitation. Enforcement of these laws, which could be superseded by the Supreme Court's ruling if challenged, was almost non-existent until September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, many states developed a renewed interest in requiring the pledge, whether that meant passing new laws or enforcing old ones.

In 2006, an 11th grader named Cameron Frazier refused to stand and recite the pledge, only to be reproached by his teacher and embarrassed in front of his classmates. The school was enforcing a 1942 state law that required recitation of the pledge. The ensuing lawsuit went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, where the state's law was found to be in violation of the Supreme Court's ruling and the school was forced to pay the student $32,500. Ultimately, while students can challenge their schools' or states' measures to require the pledge, it's a battle that ought to be unnecessary.

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