Children Cannot Be Required to Recite the Pledge of Allegiance

Lawmakers just can’t give up the imposition of group think. Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, has introduced HB2523 that would require school children in first through 12th grades to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

Under current law, they may if they like; this change would require they do so unless their parents write an excuse or if the student is 18 and opts out. It covers district public schools and charter, not private, parochial or homeschools. I guess we don’t care if those kids are patriotic?

Today’s pledge is credited to Francis Bellamy in1892. Bellamy’s version did not include “under God” though he was a Baptist minister and Christian socialist. The language of the Pledge has been changed several times since Bellamy’s version. In 1923, “my flag” was changed to “the Flag of the United States” so that immigrants knew it meant their new flag, not their old one.

The words “of America” were added in 1924. That new version was recognized by Congress in 1942.

The words “under God” were not added until 1954 during the Cold War when the U.S. wanted to differentiate itself from the godless communists. Several previous attempts to add that wording had failed; it was finally achieved by a joint resolution of Congress. However, some historians argue that in fact it was not the fear of godless communists that motivated the addition of “under God” but the desire to conflate Christianity and capitalism as a challenge to the New Deal legislation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The pledge was first used in public schools in 1892 in connection with the World’s Fair in Chicago. My friends from other countries are astonished that school children are required to recite such a pledge as they consider it akin to brainwashing. Five states do not require the pledge (California, Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont and Wyoming).

Over the years, many lawsuits have been brought against mandatory recitation of the Pledge and the wording “under God.” Jehovah’s Witnesses brought many of the cases because they consider the pledge to be idolatry and against their religion. In 1943, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court said that public school students cannot be required to say the Pledge and that such ideological dogma is antithetical to the principles of our country.

The justice concluded with, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.” Parker’s bill is unconstitutional.

Other objections have been that for a democratic republic built on freedom of dissent, citizens should not be required to speak, as in reciting a pledge, because it violates the First Amendment. Secondly, children who are forced to recite the Pledge are not of an age that they can consent to the speaking. Third, the addition of “under God” in 1954 violates the First Amendment protection against the establishment of religion.

In 2005, a California court ruled that forcing children to say “under God” was an endorsement of monotheism that violated the First Amendment. In 2006, a Florida court ruled that requiring students to stand and pledge violated both the First and 14th amendments. In that case, the student had been ridiculed by the teacher. In 2009, a mother in Maryland sued and won when a teacher berated her child and had her removed from class for refusing to say the Pledge.

In March 2023, a ninth-grader in South Carolina opted not to say the pledge and the teacher yelled at her, confronted her and pushed her against a wall. She has sued the school district. In Texas in 2023 a teacher tried to force a student to translate the pledge and when she refused, retaliated against her. She sued. Both students were of African descent.

It makes no difference in the legal analysis that an event may be “optional” for students. School sponsorship of an event with religious content is unconstitutional even if student participation is nominally voluntary and students may opt out. See Schempp, 374 U.S. at 224-25; see also Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 311, 312; and Lee, 505 U.S. at 593, 594 (“adolescents are often susceptible to pressure from their peers towards conformity…”).

Neither the Pledge of Allegiance nor the saying “under God” had any connection with the founding of the nation. Trying to force students to say it is a violation of our founding principles.

Dianne Post is Legal Director of Secular Communities for AZ.