School Climate & Safety

Madison Board OKs New Pledge, Anthem Policy

By Mark Walsh — October 24, 2001 4 min read
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The Madison, Wis., school board last week reversed a week-old policy that was widely perceived as banishing the Pledge of Allegiance and the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” from its schools.

At the end of a school board meeting in which 170 students, residents, and outsiders gave their opinions for some eight hours, the board voted 6-1 in the early-morning hours of Oct. 16 to once again allow schools to offer either the pledge or the national anthem.

In a move to comply with a recent state law that requires every public school to offer either the pledge or the anthem each day, the board members had voted a week earlier—by 3-2, with two members absent—to instruct school administrators to use only instrumental versions of the national anthem.

That Oct. 8 resolution did not mention the Pledge of Allegiance, leading many people to conclude that the 25,000-student district had barred its recitation and sparking a storm of criticism. But board members who supported the initial resolution insist they never intended such a ban.

Bill Keys, the board member who proposed the Oct. 8 policy and was alone in opposing last week’s reversal, said it was meant to show respect to those uncomfortable reciting the pledge or singing the war-related lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“We have a large number of people who refuse to take religious oaths to something other than what they believe in,” he said. “We were trying to satisfy the state law and be as inclusive as possible.”

A music-only rendition of the national anthem would give students the chance to reflect on citizenship, sing the lyrics, or recite the pledge on their own, he added.

Bad Spin

The Wisconsin law was passed as part of the state budget in August, before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon prompted a surge of patriotism nationwide. Schools around the country have been dusting off their policies about reciting the pledge and have promoted other patriotic displays. (“Patriotism and Prayer: Constitutional Questions Are Muted,” Oct. 10, 2001.)

Late last week, the New York City board of education unanimously voted to require its schools to lead students in the pledge each school day and at all schoolwide assemblies and events.

In Madison, criticism erupted after the school board’s Oct. 8 vote as thousands of residents and people around the country phoned and e-mailed the district to protest what they perceived as an outright ban on the pledge and the words of the national anthem. Radio host Rush Limbaugh criticized the board, while others threatened a convention boycott of the city.

School board President Calvin J. Williams, who voted for Mr. Keys’ policy, said he realized right away that the policy was misunderstood, and he called for the board to reconsider it.

“This was being spun real bad,” he said.

A crowd estimated at 1,200 showed up at the board’s Oct. 15 meeting, with many carrying American flags and one man dressed in Revolutionary War garb. Opponents of the earlier policy gathered signatures for a recall of the three board members who voted for it. Early in the meeting last week, the crowd spontaneously began reciting the pledge, and all board members except for Mr. Keys joined in.

“It was a litmus test,” he said later. “To me, it was living proof of what coercion is.”

Board members also heard from some who favored the initial policy and who argued that the pledge and the anthem should not be a daily ritual in schools. One student said she felt pressured to participate in the pledge, and said she was certain that some of her classmates did, too.

Different Approaches

But others argued that Madison, which is home to the University of Wisconsin’s main campus and has a reputation for liberal politics, would be too far out of the national mainstream if it did anything that discouraged the pledge.

“For a few minutes every morning, everyone joins in an exercise that I believe binds us together,” said board member Ray Allen, who was absent from the Oct. 8 meeting. He proposed allowing school administrators to decide whether to offer the pledge or a version of the anthem.

The board approved that measure with its 6-1 vote. But it also approved a measure requiring a teacher or staff member in each school to read this statement each time the pledge or anthem is offered: “We live in a nation of freedom. Participation in the pledge and anthem is voluntary. Those who wish to participate should now stand; others may remain seated.”

At Madison West High School, Principal Loren J. Rathert said he planned to offer the pledge to start each week, but to use different versions of the national anthem on other days, including recordings by contemporary singers such as Whitney Houston.

Students have not been as agitated about the issue as many adults, Mr. Rathert said.

The students “have been talking about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, especially in this time of crisis,” he said. “This has all reminded people that living in a democracy is noisy and messy. Anybody who thinks living in a democracy is quiet and clean is missing the point.”

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