School Climate & Safety

Patriotism and Prayer: Constitutional Questions Are Muted

By Mark Walsh — October 10, 2001 6 min read
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At Wolf Creek Elementary School in Broken Arrow, Okla., Principal Ron Beckwith wanted to join the national surge of patriotism that has followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Other schools in his 15,000-student district had put “God Bless America” on their marquees, but Wolf Creek doesn’t have such a message board. So Mr. Beckwith went out and spent $100 for a cloth banner that displays that slogan and shows an American flag. The banner now hangs in front of his school, where past messages have touted school fund-raisers and the like.

“I just felt it was a positive message for the school and for Broken Arrow,” said Mr. Beckwith.

Across the country, schools are displaying similar patriotic slogans and symbols. Meanwhile, schoolchildren are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in greater numbers and with renewed spirit, educators report. And in some public schools, more students are gathering for prayer sessions.

While most such activity went mostly unquestioned in the immediate days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in more recent weeks there have been eyebrows raised in some communities about the propriety—and constitutionality—of some practices.

Some civil libertarians have quietly suggested that not every patriotic or religious response to the attacks in schools is the right, or legally sound, approach.

Those quiet suggestions have drawn loud and fierce counter-reactions in some communities. Many people argue that rules against mixing church and state should be different in a time of national crisis.

In Roxbury, N.J., Superintendent Louis Ripatrazone last month ordered two elementary schools to remove “God Bless America” signs to show respect for those with different religious views. The schools replaced them with the slogans “Stand Up for America” and “Proud to be an American.”

After a strong backlash from local residents, however, Mr. Ripatrazone relented and allowed the schools to restore “God Bless America” to their signs.

The Sept. 11 attacks have stoked patriotism and evoked prayer across America. Here, students at Mississippi’s Hattiesburg High School pray Sept. 19 at the annual “See You at the Pole” nationwide observance.
—Barry Beard/Hattiesburg American

In Tucson, Ariz., some parents objected to a sign that said simply, “Bless America.” Who was blessing America, one parent asked school officials, if not God? After consulting with its lawyer, the Tucson district allowed God back on the theory that the slogan was primarily a patriotic message, not a religious one.

In Broken Arrow, meanwhile, school officials heard complaints from a few constituents about the display of “God Bless America,” so they sought legal advice.

“We did have some complaints,” said Steve Cowen, the spokesman for the Oklahoma district. “One woman showed up at a school and asked that the sign be removed. It turned into an emotional deal.”

The district consulted with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, which advised that officials would be on stronger legal ground if they included the slogan as part of a larger patriotic display, with such symbols as “a flag, a picture of the Liberty Bell, a patriotic quote, or some other patriotic symbol.”

After word mistakenly spread that the school boards’ association had advised the Broken Arrow district to avoid the slogan, the group sent a letter to all schools in the state stressing that “we have not advised any school to avoid use of the expression ‘God Bless America,’ nor have we advised any school to take it down.”

Jay A. Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, has been getting questions from schools and citizens since shortly after the attacks. The Virginia Beach, Va.- based center is affiliated with the televangelist Pat Robertson.

“We’ve had a real swelling up of civic religion,” said Mr. Sekulow, who sees no problem with schools displaying “God Bless America” or similar messages. “I don’t think it is unconstitutional for schools to make that kind of tacit acknowledgment. I think you would be hard pressed to argue that this is an endorsement of religion.”

Campus Prayers

But lawyers for civil liberties groups that are often at odds with the ACLJ suggest that public schools pause before allowing such displays.

“I think that because public schools serve all children, it would be best if that kind of sentiment were not placed on the bulletin board or on marquees that advertise school wrestling matches and so forth,” said Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington.

He noted that after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was an increase in reports of public schools allowing group prayers or inviting clergy members to assemblies. School administrators need to be mindful of activities that might violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion, Mr. Lynn said.

“The Constitution has not been suspended in the midst of this national tragedy,” he said.

In another way, the surge of patriotism is in colorful evidence in schools. Schools have realized that some classrooms lacked American flags, and many parents were surprised to learn that before Sept. 11, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance had fallen by the wayside in some places.

“Two of our students came to me on the 11th and said they noticed that we don’t have flags in every classroom,” said Larry Larson, the principal of Rosemount Middle School in Rosemount, Minn. The students counted the number of new flags needed and then proposed that the pledge be recited every Friday at the school’s Pride Day, when assemblies are held.

Debate on the Pledge

Elementary school pupils in the 28,000-student Rosemount-Eagan- Apple Valley district have long recited the pledge every day, but middle and high school students were considered too old for the daily ritual. Judy Lindsay, a school board member, proposed late last month that the district require the leading of the pledge each day for students at all grade levels, followed by a moment of silence.

The measure was tabled by her colleagues, who suggested that she had sprung it on them without notice.

“The superintendent had reported to the board that the American Legion had donated flags, so I thought, great, let’s put them to use,” Ms. Lindsay said. “There are a lot of students and adults who want to say the pledge on a daily basis.”

But Mr. Larson and others in the district believed it would be better for older students to reach their own decisions on reciting the pledge. And he thought that daily recitation was perhaps too frequent for his students.

“I have always felt strongly that when you say something every day, it loses its significance,” he said.

Ms. Lindsay disagreed: “You don’t start every other ballgame by singing the national anthem.”

Minnesota is not among the 24 states that have laws requiring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Most school administrators are probably aware that a 1943 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits mandatory recitation of the pledge.

“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,” says the World War II-era opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

The state laws generally require students who do not want to recite the pledge to stand and be silent or otherwise refrain from disrupting the class. Elliot M. Mincberg, the legal director of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, based in Washington, said schools must ensure that “students can opt out of the pledge in ways that don’t stigmatize them.”

The Supreme Court has not ruled on state laws requiring schools to include the pledge as part of their routines, but a federal appeals court issued an oft-cited ruling in 1992 upholding an Illinois law that does that.

While acknowledging the potential pressure on students to recite the pledge, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, held in Sherman v. Community Consolidated School District that “patriotism is an effort by the state to promote its own survival, and along the way to teach those virtues that justify its survival. Public schools help to transmit those virtues and values.”

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