Stateline Story

Pledge of Allegiance Draws New Legislative Interest

When a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because of the phrase "under God," state legislatures across the country introduced a frenzy of resolutions condemning the decision.

But it wasn't the first time they addressed the pledge. Since last September 11, lawmakers have introduced more than 50 Pledge of Allegiance bills, resurrecting an issue that for decades was of little concern.

"The pledge has become a big issue for lawmakers," says Greta Durr, research analyst in the education division of the National Council Of State Legislatures.

"September 11 put the pledge back on people's radar screens," says Kirk Dillard, a Republican state senator in Illinois.

One month after the terrorist attacks, Dillard introduced a bill that requires Illinois public high schools to recite the pledge each school day.

He did so at the urging of the commander of a local chapter of the American Legion. The commander was upset because he had learned that while Illinois requires public elementary schools to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, it does not do so for public high schools.

"(The American Legion official) told me that it is even more important for high school students to say the pledge because they can grasp the significance of it," says Dillard, "He also said that if used properly, the pledge can be an excellent teaching tool."

The bill passed by an overwhelming majority this spring and was signed into law on July Fourth by Republican Gov. George Ryan, who said it was his duty to "instill a sense of patriotism in our youth."

The state's high schools are now trying to incorporate the 19th century patriotic recitation into their curriculum by the time school opens this fall.

Illinois is not alone. New Hampshire, Missouri and South Dakota also passed laws this year, ordering their public schools to recite the pledge. Before this year, half the states had laws requiring the pledge as part of the school day, and half a dozen recommended it.

But not everyone is on board the bandwagon. Many lawmakers have opposed pledge bills because they view them as forms of forced patriotism. And civil libertarians worry that the pledge frenzy could result in schools making kids recite the pledgea practice that was deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1943.

For these reasons, some pledge bills have inspired fierce opposition.

In May, Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed a bill that had easily passed the Minnesota legislature. It would have required public schools to say the pledge at least once a week.

"I am vetoing this bill because I believe patriotism comes from the heart," Ventura said. "A patriot shows their patriotism through their actions, by their choice."

Frank Sapareto, a Republican state representative in New Hampshire, was able to successfully push through the state legislature a bill that forces all public schools to authorize a period of time for the pledge during the school day and requires students to stand during it. But it wasn't easy.

The state Senate approved the bill, but House committees rejected it. The bill eventually passed in the Housebut only by a narrow margin with almost all Democrats voting against it.

"I had to fight hard for this bill," says Sapareto. "A lot of Democrats opposed it. And the political correctors came out swinging."

The New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is one of the groups that fought the bill.

"I expect we're going to see a great many problems with the pledge of allegiance here," says Claire Ebel, the chapter's executive director. "Even before the new law, I was getting complaints from young people across the state who were being disciplined and suspended for not standing."

One reason Democratic lawmakers opposed the pledge requirement is because they were concerned about forcing schools to recite the words "under God," Sapareto says.

But lawmakers elsewhere have made a point to demonstrate their support for that religious phrase.

Resolutions condemning the 9th Circuit ruling have been adopted in Delaware, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and New Jersey since June.

But 11 failed or are languishing (and likely to die at the end of legislative sessions), including measures in Michigan and New Jersey and ones in California and Colorado.

While some resolutions may be going nowhere, the cause is not.

New York Lieutenant Governor Mary Donohue recently wrote a letter to members of the state's Conservative Party saying she is "personally leading the crusade throughout New York" to let President Bush know New Yorkers oppose the federal appeals court ruling.

"Will you join me?" she asks.