Law & Courts

Pledge Debate Taken to Heart In Calif. District

By Caroline Hendrie — March 03, 2004 12 min read
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After immigrating here from Russia at age 10, Anna Shulyanskaya was “shocked” the first time she heard the Pledge of Allegiance.

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Read the accompanying stories, “Appeal Makes for Unusual Bedfellows,” and “Friends of the Court.”

“When I heard ‘under God,’ that made me so happy,” recalled the 17-year-old high school junior, explaining that the government in her native land had long frowned on her parents’ Baptist views. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really free country.’ ”

Classmate Tim Nguyen, who came here from Vietnam at age 3, remembers reacting differently to the pledge as a child. He recited it with his class, he said, but the reference to God struck him as foreign to his Buddhist beliefs.

“It felt like it was something that was forced on me,” the 17-year-old said.

Pledging allegiance to the flag—and the “one nation under God” it is said to represent—has been second nature to generations of American schoolchildren. Yet few have had as much reason to reflect on the practice as those in this fast-growing suburb of Sacramento.

When a cause célèbre crops up in your back yard—or your schoolyard, for that matter—it can be hard to ignore.

Since March 2000, California’s Elk Grove school district has faced a legal challenge to the pledge’s constitutionality from Michael A. Newdow, an atheist and physician whose daughter attends one of the system’s 34 elementary schools. Now, as the district prepares to make its case before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 24, the highly publicized dispute in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (Case No. 02-1624) is not only prompting young people here to think, but also to deeply disagree.

“People do have very strong views each way,” said Priscilla S. Cox, the president of the Elk Grove school board. “The majority is very supportive of what our board is doing, but that doesn’t mean other views aren’t out there.”

From the start, Elk Grove school leaders have stood solidly behind their policy of requiring elementary schools to offer daily, teacher-led recitations of the pledge. And they believe the public stands firmly behind them.

“I think our district is 99.9 percent in support of our board,” said Brian D. Myers, a longtime criminal prosecutor and board member.

Backed by the Bush administration, Congress, and all 50 states, the district rejects the position taken by a federal appeals court that public school recitations of the pledge violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of government-established religion. Instead, Elk Grove contends that the pledge is a patriotic exercise that pays homage to the historical principle that citizens’ rights derive from a higher authority.

Not everyone in town thinks the district has taken the right tack. Among them is a veteran Elk Grove High School history teacher, David R. Hill, who says he regards the district’s court fight as “a tremendous waste of energy.”

“I don’t see anything that’s educational about the Pledge of Allegiance as it’s performed in elementary schools,” he said. “They’re not mature enough to understand any of the concepts in the pledge, so to me it’s indoctrination, not education.”

Still, he said, “I suspect that I’m in the minority on that.”

As firmly as they may disagree with that minority, district officials have provided opportunities for students to explore and express views contrary to their own. In the hope of using the pledge controversy as a teaching tool, for example, this winter the district sponsored a student essay contest on the question: “Does the practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the words ‘under God,’ violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution?”

Open to 9th, 10th, and 11th graders, the contest was designed to produce two winners, one on each side of the question.

“We don’t believe in indoctrination, we believe in exploration,” Mr. Myers said. “That’s what education is all about.”

Seeking Unity

If there’s one feature that defines the 320 square miles that make up the Elk Grove Unified School District, it’s growth. Farmland is being replaced by subdivisions and strip malls at a dizzying pace. Enrollment in the district, whose borders encompass part of the state capital of Sacramento, has soared from 18,200 in 1987 to more than 55,000 today.

Schools are overcrowded despite a year-round schedule. Yet newcomers are still flocking to the demographically diverse district, and enrollment is expected to swell to 80,000 by 2010.

Such growth has presented the district with major challenges, not only in keeping pace with pressing facilities needs, but also in preserving the sense of community that drew people to Elk Grove in the first place, Ms. Cox said.

That is one reason, she added, that the district is so staunchly defending the pledge.

“You have to have some type of unification to make it work—I really strongly feel that,” the board president said recently, adding that the district educates students with more than 80 different native languages. “One of the important aspects of education is to teach from a historical perspective where our country came from and where it is.”

Elk Grove Superintendent David W. Gordon also stresses the educational value of the pledge, as well as the debate over it. And he’s been doing so ever since Dr. Newdow won a surprise victory against the district in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2002, which prompted a national political outcry.

“Wherever we land, everyone will live with the decision and move on, and that’s why it’s a great country,” Mr. Gordon said during an interview at the district’s Valley High School, a sprawling campus of one- story, beige-and-blue buildings. “It’s important to help students realize you can’t take that for granted.”

That’s where the essay contest comes in. “The lesson in this is to respect both sides of the question and respect the arguments on both sides, and that’s one of the reasons we wanted the children to be a duo,” Mr. Gordon said.

Even Dr. Newdow, who is strongly critical of district leaders for what he describes as “fighting to keep God in the pledge,” gives the superintendent credit for coming up with the idea for the essay contest. “He turned it into something positive,” Dr. Newdow said.

Just last month, Valley High School junior Ai Nhi Hoang and Elk Grove High School sophomore Amanda Everett learned their essays were tops in a field of more than 350 when Ms. Cox and Mr. Gordon burst into their respective classrooms, trailed by news cameras and bearing large floral bouquets. As a prize, the district is flying both girls to Washington this month to attend the Supreme Court arguments.

Ms. Hoang, a Roman Catholic who came to the United States from Vietnam nine years ago, says her first memories of the pledge revolve around patriotism, not religion.

“I remember everybody putting their hand on their heart and facing the flag,” the soft-spoken 17- year-old said. “It kind of left an impression that said America to me, because that was the first thing I really learned.”

In her 500-word essay, Ms. Hoang called the pledge “an oath of loyalty” and “not a form of prayer.” She noted that it had been “grandly and loudly” recited following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Why take away a source of unity in a time of national pain?” she asked in the essay.

By contrast, Ms. Everett argued in her essay that the current pledge stems from “an insecure time in our nation’s history.” Seeking to distinguish the United States from the communist Soviet Union during the Cold War, Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted legislation in 1954 adding the words “under God.”

“Today, in 2004, communism is no longer a looming threat,” Ms. Everett wrote. “It is unnecessary to invoke ‘God’ to calm the fears of the nation.”

Initially, Ms. Everett said, she wasn’t sure which side of the argument to take. “It changed after I looked up stuff,” she said.

Risa Abrusia, Ms. Everett’s mother, said her daughter reached out to “various churches, Buddhist centers, a temple, and Muslims” before concluding that the phrase “under God” should not be in the pledge.

“A Buddhist talked to her and said he’d prefer that it be taken out,” Ms. Abrusia said. “That was really influential to her.”

Chris Hardwicke, a social science teacher at Valley High School who coordinated the contest, said Ms. Everett was not the only student to change her views after conducting research.

“It’s interesting to see that thought process going on,” he said. “That’s what I love about this.”

Voluntary or Not?

Mr. Hardwicke recently used the pledge controversy to provide students with practice in structured classroom discussion in his study-skills course aimed at academically average students preparing for college. Ms. Shulyanskaya and Mr. Nguyen were among those who took part.

One topic was whether young pupils feel pressure to recite the pledge, despite their legal entitlement to opt out. In 1943, before the words “under God” were added to the pledge, the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette that students could not be forced to say the pledge. The landmark case was brought by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who regarded saluting the flag as a form of idolatry.

Adrianna King, one of Mr. Hardwicke’s students, remembers asking an elementary school classmate why she was refraining from saying the pledge, and being told “ ‘I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.’ ”

“I respected that and left that alone,” she said. Because children can opt out, she argued, parents who object to the words “under God” already have recourse.

But Ian Reeder said many youngsters would feel “secluded” if they refrained from the pledge. “Not every elementary school student is going to stand up to their friends and say, ‘I’m not your religion,’” said Mr. Reeder, who described himself as nonreligious. That’s one reason, he said, that he considers the pledge’s current wording unconstitutional.

At the end of the class, Mr. Hardwicke asked for a show of hands.

“Who thinks the pledge should be left alone?” he asked. Twelve hands rose.

“How many think the words ‘under God’ should be taken out of the pledge?” Ten hands went up.

Across town at Elk Grove’s Morse Elementary School, Principal Michael Gulden talked in his office on a recent afternoon with four 3rd graders who had just carried out the daily honors of reciting the pledge over the public- address system.

Asked what the oath meant to her, one child replied: “It’s almost like a prayer. It says God. That’s what makes me think it was a prayer.”

A little boy quickly agreed. “I think it’s like a prayer because it says ‘one nation under God,’ ” he said.

The two other children said they, too, viewed it as a prayer. Asked by their principal what they are doing when they say the pledge, one girl piped up, “Blessing yourself.”

Later, the children’s teacher, Mary Condas, said she was mildly surprised that the children had likened the pledge to a prayer, but suggested that “it could have been because of all the publicity” surrounding the court case.

Shielding the Child

That publicity has been of particular concern to Sandra Banning, the mother of Dr. Newdow’s daughter, who attends 4th grade in another Elk Grove elementary school and who has not been identified in court papers.

Ms. Banning, a church-going Christian who supports the pledge as is, said the district has been helpful in shielding the girl from media attention. Officials have steered reporters to other schools, for example, and helped the child dodge TV cameras.

“This little girl has one shot at childhood, and I don’t want her in a position of being even temporarily singled out as a celebrity child,” Ms. Banning said during an interview at a local restaurant. “She needs to be able to run on the playground without worrying.”

How much the girl should be involved in the pledge case has been a sore point between Ms. Banning and Dr. Newdow, who never married and have been embroiled in a custody dispute for the past five years.

In a federal trial court, Dr. Newdow had sued on behalf of the girl as well as himself. But when Ms. Banning objected, a family court judge blocked him from continuing to include the child as a plaintiff. The 9th Circuit appeals court subsequently held that Dr. Newdow had legal standing on his own to bring the case—a point that the school district and the Bush administration dispute.

The parents also squared off in court over whether the girl should be on hand when Dr. Newdow—who has a law degree as well as a medical degree and is representing himself—argued his appeal in the 9th Circuit court. A family court judge permitted that, but now the two parents are skirmishing over whether the girl will be allowed to attend the Supreme Court oral arguments in Washington.

Ms. Banning worries, among other concerns, that the child could end up on television or in the newspapers if she goes. But Dr. Newdow sees that as a risk worth taking.

“If this were your father, wouldn’t you want to watch this, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?” he said. “I’ve tried to keep her out of it, but if her picture happened to be in the paper, that’s not the end of the world.”

Meanwhile, the child has continued to say the pledge with her classmates, Ms. Banning said, and even volunteered to lead it right after the 9th Circuit court’s 2002 decision was handed down.

Despite the district’s efforts to protect the girl’s privacy, Ms. Banning said her schoolmates all know she is Dr. Newdow’s daughter, in part because he has been volunteering in her classrooms since 1999. The girl has a well-rehearsed response when other children bring up the case, her mother said.

“Kids do ask her, ‘Why is your dad doing this? Why does he want to take God out?’ ” Ms. Banning said. “Her standard response is to shrug her shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Curiosity Piqued

For her part, Ms. Everett said that she, too, has gotten questions since her essay supporting Dr. Newdow’s position was declared a winner on Feb. 4.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘You’re atheist, right?’” she said. While she and her family do not attend religious services, Ms. Everett described herself as “spiritual.”

“We had to have a real long talk because she felt attacked,” her mother, Ms. Abrusia, said. “I told her to put it right back at them and say, ‘Are you judging me? Isn’t that against your religion?’”

Ms. Everett relished the chance to air her views one recent afternoon with a group of students gathered after school in Mr. Hill’s portable classroom at Elk Grove High. Opinions in the group were divided, with junior Tiffany Wynn among those who said she strongly supported the pledge with its reference to God.

“If you take it out, it’s going to be very public ... and the children will know that the Supreme Court said there is no God,” Ms. Wynn said. “That will make morality go down.”

Tossing her hands in the air, Ms. Everett protested: “By taking it out, it’s making it neutral.”

Throughout the heated discussion, junior Eric Thomason sat quietly listening. At the end, he said he still had not decided how he wanted the Supreme Court case to wind up.

“I haven’t really developed a strong standpoint either way,” Mr. Thomason said. “We’ll see how it turns out.”


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