Wednesday, July 3, 2002

No strict rules on pledge in schools

Published in the Current; co-written with Kate Irish Collins

Cape and Scarborough schools have no formal policies on the Pledge of the Allegiance – some schools rarely recite it and others every day – and are not worried about the effect of a recent federal court decision declaring the pledge unconstitutional.

In Cape Elizabeth, elementary and middle school students say the pledge daily, according to Superintendent Tom Forcella. At the high school, students hear the pledge recited over the school’s intercom system each Monday morning.

After Sept. 11, some CEHS students petitioned the administration to institute the recitation of the pledge daily rather than just Mondays. Principal Jeff Shedd asked the student government for its advice. In late October, the
student government decided not to recommend any changes.

Shedd said that while the legality of the pledge did not come up in the student discussion, some students did express a concern about the phrase “under God,” which was the crux of the court’s decision to strike down the pledge.

Also under discussion then was whether a student should lead the pledge, or whether someone in each classroom should lead it, rather than having it read over the intercom.

Students at Scarborough High School do not recite the pledge, except on certain special occasions.

Superintendent William Michaud said it is up to each school principal to decide when the pledge is said. It is said every day in the elementary schools, but the intermediate and middle school principals could not be reached for comment before press time due to summer break.

On June 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declared unconstitutional the Pledge of Allegiance, by striking down the 1954 law, which added the words “under God.”

The original pledge, written in 1892, was made part of the U.S. Flag Code by Congress in 1942.

Because the court decision was in the Ninth Circuit, covering seven Western states, as well as Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the decision does not directly affect Maine. Further, the court has stayed the enforcement of its own ruling, pending further review by the circuit court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

But local school officials are still critical of the court’s decision.

“I think the decision was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. It makes no sense at all,” Michaud said.

“I was – as many people were– very surprised by” the decision, Shedd said.

The case was brought by a California father who is an atheist. He claimed that requiring his daughter to hear the Pledge of Allegiance each morning—including the words “under God”—was an inappropriate endorsement of monotheism by the government.

“The court didn’t apply any proportionality test at all. How does hearing others recite the pledge affect her in any way?” Michaud asked. “How can he think his child is disadvantaged by having to watch others? No child is forced to recite the pledge,” Michaud added.

Shedd agreed, saying that any potential “damage” to someone listening to the pledge would be very small.

“At least the court has stayed the order,” Michaud said.

The Scarborough and Cape town councils and school boards begin each regular meeting by reciting the pledge.

“This is the fourth school district I’ve been involved with where the board starts each meeting with the pledge,” Michaud said.

In late 2001, the Madison, Wis., Board of Education voted to ban the pledge because they believed the words “under God” violated the constitutional separation of church and state. Shortly thereafter, in the face of nationwide outcry, the board reversed their decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, but it has ruled on school prayer. In 1985, the court banned moments of silence in schools for what it called “unconstitutional purposes,” effectively barring mandatory school prayer. That decision did leave the door open for other types of moments of silence. In August 2001, the court upheld a Virginia law establishing a mandatory moment of silence for students to “meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity. ”