States Weigh Bills to Stoke Students’ Patriotism

By John Gehring — March 27, 2002 4 min read
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State lawmakers around the country have been crafting legislation that would have schools begin the day with the Pledge of Allegiance, post the national motto “In God We Trust” in classrooms, or require students to take classes that teach patriotism.

The flurry of bills, many of which are still pending, has emerged against a broader backdrop of renewed national pride following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Many of the proposals are welcomed by those who say schools have drifted too far from teaching patriotic values and the tenets of American democracy. Critics see the efforts as attempts to mandate patriotic correctness and as examples of old-fashioned political grandstanding.

Either way, the debates over the issue often touch raw nerves.

“It’s hard to vote against something like this because people misinterpret what you’re saying,” said Rep. Frank Weddig of Colorado, a Democrat who opposes a bill that would require schools to include the Pledge of Allegiance in the school day.

In Missouri, Sen. Ted House, the Democratic chairman of the education committee, introduced a bill that would require all K-12 public schools to offer the pledge. “The mandate is on the schools and not the students,” he said. “We don’t demand loyalty.”

He sponsored the same legislation three years ago, only to watch it fail. This year, it passed 32-0 in the Senate and has moved to the House.

“There was a noticeable difference after September 11,” Mr. House said.

High Court Has Spoken

According to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, half the states now require schools to offer the Pledge of Allegiance during the school day, though students can choose not to participate. Six states recommend that schools make time for the pledge.

This year, bills that would require schools to conduct the pledge have been introduced in several states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Mississippi, Missouri, and Indiana.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1943, in the landmark case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, that students can’t be forced to recite the pledge. While aiming to steer clear of unconstitutional waters, state legislators have been seeking to require, or at least strongly encourage, schools to offer the Pledge of Allegiance as a way to revive a tradition they say has been lost in many schools.

“I was surprised to find that some of the schools were not saying it on a voluntary basis,” said Rep. F. Philip Prelli, a Connecticut Republican who introduced a bill that would require schools to set aside time each day to say the pledge.

“I can’t force patriotism, but if I never teach patriotism, I can’t build the base for it,” Mr. Prelli continued. “We were getting away from patriotism in this country. For generations we all said the Pledge of Allegiance. We should be doing that for our children now.”

But Teresa Younger, the executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the state should not be meddling in an area better left to local control.

“There are school districts that already do this. We are concerned about the state mandating this,” she said.

Elsewhere, lawmakers have also considered bills that would require schools to hang signs reading “In God We Trust"—the national motto, which appears on U.S. currency. A year ago, Mississippi became the first state to pass such a law. Michigan followed and adopted a similar measure in December.

The American Family Association, a conservative Christian group in Tupelo, Miss., has for the past few years mobilized a national campaign to have the motto—which was adopted by Congress in 1956—posted in schools around the country.

Randy Sharp, the director of special projects with the AFA, said the terrorist attacks created a renewed interest in the effort. At least 15 states, Mr. Sharp said, now require or strongly encourage displaying the motto in classrooms.

“Because no legal challenges to the motto have been successful, the ACLU has admitted the public display of our national motto is constitutional. Yet, some ACLU chapters continue to intimidate local school boards by threatening a lawsuit.”

David Owens, the superintendent of the 29,000-student Clay County, Fla., public schools, said the national motto has been posted in all of his district’s schools. A bill in the Florida legislature that would require schools to post the motto has been approved by the House.

“If it’s a way of building patriotism, I’m all for it,” Mr. Owens said. “When I told the principals about this, they all wanted it. This has been very well-received here.”

Patriotism Classes

In another twist on the same theme, lawmakers in a number of states have pushed for having students take patriotism classes. Such courses, the sponsors argue, would improve young people’s understanding of what it means to be an American citizen.

In Colorado, for example, a bill offered by Sen. John Andrews, a Republican, would have required students in every grade to take an “age appropriate” unit of patriotism that would complement what students already learn in history or civics classes.

The Senate, however, has amended the bill so that it would encourage rather than mandate the classes. The unit would include a review of the country’s founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

“Our goal was to do what we can to see that the new mood of valuing this country and our heritage is more than just a mood, that it’s the beginning of a new approach with what we do with our students in school,” Mr. Andrews said.

But Senate President Stan Matsunaka said lawmakers were just trying to win political points with patriotism.

“This is grandstanding at its worst,” Mr. Matsunaka, a Democrat running for governor, asserted.

“The Republicans want to wrap themselves in the flag and say they are more patriotic than Democrats,” he said. “I think it’s hogwash.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as States Weigh Bills to Stoke Students’ Patriotism


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