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ACLU challenges pledge requirement



A ttention all public school students: Your allegiance is now required by law.

Beginning this school year, Colorado will require every elementary, middle and high school student to recite the pledge of allegiance every day in school.

For some local schools, mandating the pledge is a nonissue as the recitation is already part of their daily routine. "We've been saying the pledge all along; the only thing we're doing this year is having students lead it," said Lynn Kintz, principal of Ridgeview Elementary School in District 49, "It's business as usual."

But for Arvada Republican House Rep. Bill Crane, an absence of the pledge was personal. He introduced the law when he learned his 17-year-old son wasn't reciting the pledge in his school.

The new law, sponsored in the Senate by Colorado Springs Republican Doug Lamborn, allows only those students who are non-U.S. citizens or those with religious objections to opt out, if their parents send a letter to their principal. Gov. Bill Owens signed the bill into law in May.

"We want to give students the opportunity to stand and recite the pledge," said Crane. "Before they didn't have that opportunity."

Crane said he was unaware of any statistics linking reciting the pledge with an increase in patriotism. "It (the pledge) gives you identity as a nation, gives you a sense community," he said.

But not everyone sees the law as a benign effort to institutionalize patriotism. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed suit against the state on grounds that the law infringes on the First Amendment rights of teachers and students alike.

The ACLU's lawsuit is based on the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision in West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette, in which several Jehovah's Witness students were expelled for refusing to recite the pledge on religious grounds. The Supreme Court ruled that the students' religious rights superseded the patriotic intentions of school administrators.

"Everyone knows that the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech," said Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein, "but what it also guarantees is the right not to speak."

Silverstein said the law places teachers in a compromising position of having to choose between their First Amendment rights and their professional mandates.

"The fact that there's no consequences specified doesn't mean there won't be consequences," he said.

Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for Colorado Education Association, echoed Silverstein's sentiments. Though she's heard from only a half dozen members about the new law, Fallin said its ambiguity paves the way for potential conflict.

"We have 178 school districts; each one could end up doing something different," said Fallin, whose organization represents 37,000 teachers throughout the state.

"Each building could end up doing something different. It's possible that a principal could make it an issue with a teacher. A community member might also make it an issue that his or her child's teacher is not saying the pledge. It's unfortunate. We support saying the pledge; we just don't think it should be mandated."

An informal survey of several area school administrators this week suggests that the new law -- which carries no punitive measures for noncompliance -- will be incorporated depending on the school.

"There are individuals and families who prefer not to say the pledge for one reason or another; it's never been an issue," said Irving Middle School principal Rich Page. "We're not going to be confrontative [sic]."

"One thing that makes America great is that we all have the right to make decisions in our lives," said Rusty Moomey, principal of Mann Middle School. "We don't want anybody alienated because they choose not to say it."

When asked how noncompliant students and teachers would be dealt with, Moomey said they would discuss it privately.

-- John Dicker

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