Pledge of Allegiance vs. Freedom
- The opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction.
- — Thomas Jefferson (1)
- For most of us, the only time we enter an American high school is to vote at our local precinct. (There's an irony if there ever was one — going to participate in democracy's sacred ritual while two thousand students in the same building live under some sort of totalitarian dictatorship.)
- — Michael Moore (7)
Since 1892, public schools in the United States have forced children and teenagers to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (2). Students are ordered to swear their loyalty to the United States and its flag, and to proclaim the United States is a nation "under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
In the 1940's, a school was sued by Jehovah's Witnesses who felt it immoral to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything other than God, and who were offended their school would require them to violate their religious faith. This case wound up in the Supreme Court as West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, where the Court ruled it was unconstitutional to force people to recite the Pledge. Not only did the forced pledge violate freedom of religion for Jehovah's Witnesses, it violated freedom of speech for all students (3).
Obviously, it violates the principle of free speech to force people to say things they may not believe. And let's face it: few teenagers in America believe this country has "liberty and justice for all." An American youth, every day, suffers the lack of liberty and witnesses the lack of justice.
Our Supreme Court said the Pledge could only be Constitutional if students chose to participate voluntarily. Yet even after this ruling, schools continued to hold the Pledge of Allegiance day after day, ordering students to participate, implying threats of punishment against any student who resisted, and in many cases, actually punishing students who refused to participate. This was in clear defiance of our nation's highest law, but schools could often get away with it because our government makes it difficult for Americans younger than 18 to file lawsuits. There are no rights without remedies. Even when youth managed to get their complaints into the courts, the school could usually remain unpunished by claiming the Pledge was voluntary, pretending the implied threats of teachers were just misunderstandings, insisting students had not been punished for resistance but rather for some other misbehavior.
Most countries that call themselves "free" do not force people to recite pledges. A German reporter* recently interviewed me for a story on American patriotism. I asked her if children in Germany had to recite a Pledge of Allegiance. She gasped. Absolutely not. "We don't do anything like that in Germany." Children in Germany are not required to sing patriotic songs or to salute their government. German schools have not had such rituals since the days of Hitler. This journalist was born after World War II, so she never witnessed anything of this nature until she came to America and visited a grade school to research her story. She told me of her experience. With her voice barely above a whisper, the reporter confided, "It seemed weird to me." Watching the American grade school children, she said, reminded her of the old images of Hitler Youth.
As an American, I felt a little embarrassed talking to this woman. How could it be that a German was shocked by this slap-in-the-face to liberty while Americans, with our proud 200-year history of cherishing freedom, simply accept it? Shouldn't we be the ones who are shocked?
In 2002, the issue surfaced in American courts again. A school was sued by the atheist father of a student. The father was older than 18, so he enjoyed full access to the courts; and as an atheist, he was offended the schools would undermine his parental authority by forcing his daughter to say there is a God. In a 2-to-1 ruling, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the father. In their June 26, 2002 ruling, they declared the Pledge unconstitutional and went one step further than the U.S. Supreme Court had, declaring public schools cannot hold the Pledge voluntarily or otherwise, at least not as long as it includes the words "under God"(4).
Though this new ruling may never take effect (It must first journey further through the court system (5)), middle-aged politicians across America are already expressing outrage at this court ruling. An outright ban on reciting the Pledge, however, may be necessary to stop schools from disrespecting our rights and our freedoms, to make schools honor the ideals our flag represents. An outright ban would finally stop schools from forcing students to pledge.
There are other ways we could keep schools from spitting on our freedoms. We could give young people full access to the courts, we could require schools to inform students of their rights, and we could impose real punishments on schools that violate those rights. But America does not seem ready to do that yet. We must therefore settle for a ban on the Pledge.
Besides freedom of speech and freedom of religion, there are other reasons to end the Pledge. Forcing people to express patriotism they do not feel, or religious views they do not believe, insults people who are truly religious or truly patriotic. Insincere expressions make a mockery of sincere ones. Jesus, in his day, had to tell his followers to pray in private so they could distinguish themselves from the hypocrites who stood in the temple showing everyone how pious they were while feeling nothing in their hearts (6). Those insincere expressions of faith led most people to associate any expression of faith with hypocrisy. The same is true today with American patriotism.
When I first designed The Pro-Youth Pages, I put an American flag on every page because I love the freedom and the values our flag represents. After 9/11, however, I considered removing it. After the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, the flag became America's new fashion trend. Everyone was waving it. People drove around in SUV's with flags attached, wasting gas, giving money to terrorists who attack America, while waving our flag and pretending to love America. I did not want people to mistake The Pro-Youth Pages for another example of faux-patriotism. In the end, I decided to keep the flag on my website and just hope it goes back out of style. But I resent those who reduce patriotism to a mere fashion statement.
Forcing students to recite the Pledge degrades patriotism. It leads people to associate expressions of patriotism with the insincerity and humiliation of a child who is forced to say things he does not believe.
We cannot blame the student who obeys out of fear. We must instead stand up to those who force students to do it. In this election year, politicians are scrambling to show support for the Pledge. Those politicians must be challenged.
In the classroom, every student who cherishes freedom should engage in peaceful resistance and set a clear example for classmates. When the teacher tells you to stand and recite the Pledge, sit and recite something else. Recite, perhaps, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Make copies, so other students can recite it with you. Or recite a pledge of your own, a pledge that expresses your true feelings.
I currently am a student in college, and of course we do not have the Pledge of Allegiance here. Most college students would not tolerate such indignity. If I were still in my old high school, however, where teachers ordered us to pledge while implying threats for non-compliance, I would recite this as my pledge:
I pledge my allegiance to the values of freedom and fairness; I promise to defy any order and take any risk to defend the God-given freedoms of myself and my classmates, and I vow to do whatever I can to move America closer to that day when she will finally become a land of liberty and justice for all.