ARTICLE

Pledge Laws: Controlling Protest and Patriotism in Schools

It’s time to revisit students’ rights and what freedom really looks like.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Most of us grew up reciting this pledge at school at the beginning of the day, with little thought of what the words mean. In recent years, the enthusiasm for this tradition has somewhat faded. But now, Alabama lawmakers want to change that. 

Alabama House members recently voted to require that all K–12 public schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of each school day. Existing law allows schools a bit more discretion. Currently, Alabama schools are required to “afford all public K–12 students an opportunity each school day to voluntarily recite the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag.” But the sponsor of the bill said that, because many students don’t know the pledge, reciting it daily would help them learn it. 

After the Alabama Senate amended the bill to assert that “a student who refuses to recite the pledge of allegiance may not be punished or penalized for that refusal,” it passed. 

Since the Supreme Court has already ruled that students aren’t required to recite or stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, we question why Alabama lawmakers would even bother. 

Perhaps it’s because the way we revere the nation’s symbols—from the flag to the pledge to the national anthem—has always been rife with debate both inside and outside of schools. The need to legislate patriotism is a recurring theme throughout history. And while laws protect people who rebel against this type of reverence, there have always been negative consequences for people who do so—from famous athletes to school children.

In 2017, a Texas student was initially expelled after refusing to stand for the pledge. When she sued the school, the state stepped in, asserting that parental permission is required to opt out of participating in the pledge. 

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton responded to the lawsuit:

“The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that parents have a fundamental interest in guiding the education and upbringing of their children, which is a critical aspect of liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. The Texas Legislature protected that interest by giving the choice of whether an individual student will recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the student’s parent or guardian. School children cannot unilaterally refuse to participate in the pledge.”

In August 2018, a Colorado teacher roughly grabbed a middle school student to force him to stand for the pledge. Initially charged with assault and child abuse, the teacher agreed to a plea deal and retired. 

In February 2019, an 11-year-old Florida student was arrested after refusing to stand for the pledge.

And just last week, in Alabama, a board member in Dothan City Schools complained that students at his daughter’s high school were sitting through the pledge and national anthem. The superintendent agreed to his calls for an investigation into the matter. 

As Alabama lawmakers hope that all students pledge allegiance to the flag before they begin class, and as we witness students across the country being disciplined for refusing to participate, it’s a good time to revisit issues surrounding patriotism, nationalism and students’ rights. 

And it’s especially important that educators who are committed to social justice stand up for their students’ rights to protest in this way. 

 

Ties to Nativism and Nationalism

As we discuss this issue, it’s important to remember that the Pledge of Allegiance was crafted during a time when nationalist and nativist sentiments were on the rise. As immigration shifted demographics, powerful white men aimed to return the country to “true Americanism.”

In 1892, the pledge was published in Youth’s Companion Magazine to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Its author, Francis Bellamy, was a former minister turned advertising executive who lamented “every alien immigrant of inferior race” who found a home in the United States. 

Bellamy’s original pledge included a raised-arm salute and slightly different wording: 

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The phrase “the Flag of the United States of America,” explicitly reminding people what they were saluting, was added in 1923, just one year before the Immigration Act of 1924 severely curtailed immigration to the U.S.  

Bellamy himself felt immigrants were inferior, and that they eroded traditional values. He believed the pledge would guarantee “that the distinctive principles of true Americanism will not perish as long as free, public education endures.”

The pledge continued to serve as a way to separate “Americans” from “others” well into the 20th century. The phrase “one nation under God,” for example, was added at the height of the Cold War in 1954, as the country tried to distinguish itself from “godless” communism.

 

Paradoxical Messages

Rules about the Pledge of Allegiance aren’t complicated. Although the federal law is clear—you can’t force someone to pledge allegiance to the flag—there is still confusion about students’ rights, depending on the state. 

Thirty-two states allow students to opt out on their own, while 15 states’ statutes are unclear as to whether parents or the local school must make that choice. Only three states—Iowa, Vermont and Wyoming—do not have laws related to the pledge. 

The Supreme Court decided this decades ago. In the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Court ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that the West Virginia Board of Education violated students’ First Amendment right to free speech when it mandated that they salute the flag as a part of school activities. Justice Robert Jackson said in his opinion, “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, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” 

The Court understood that forcing people to honor a symbol of the United States is at odds with what is actually written in the 23-word statement that people are told to recite. 

If students are coerced into pledging their allegiance, does this act truly convey the spirit of the pledge—that there is liberty and justice for all? A blind expression of loyalty to a state—that continues to enact violence against its citizens—does not resemble freedom of thought. It’s not freedom at all. 

In an essay for The Washington Post on the way athletes protest, former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pointed out: “One of the ironies of the way some people express their patriotism is to brag about our freedoms, especially freedom of speech, but then brand as unpatriotic those who exercise this freedom to express dissatisfaction with the government’s record in upholding the Constitution.”

These robust pushes to salute the flag, stand for the anthem and other acts of devotion toward country seem to surface when marginalized groups and their allies push for justice. 

Teachers need to recognize that it might be difficult for some students, particularly students of color, to feel enthusiastic about the pledge, as it contradicts what they might see around them every day. We must listen and not chastise or punish them for expressing their feelings about the pledge. Respecting their right to refrain from appearing patriotic is what freedom looks like. It’s quintessentially American.

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.