A member of the Dothan, Ala., school board wants to start an investigation into why some students choose not to stand for the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the district’s superintendent is backing him up.
I have a better idea: Don’t. It’s a waste of time what will only expose the district to possible legal action.
The board member, Chris Maddox, said he got interested in the issue after his daughter, who attends Northview High School, told him that some students don’t stand for the Pledge.
“It concerns me as a parent that we are not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance,” Maddox said during a recent board meeting. “As a board member, I am telling my fellow board members I am fully planning to investigate that because it troubles me.”
Superintendent Phyllis Edwards backed the idea, saying she would look into the matter.
“It is certainly not something I agree with either,” Edwards said.
But the fact that Maddox and Edwards don’t agree with what the students are doing doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, these young people have some powerful legal precedent on their side. The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that public school students can’t be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, was brought by a Jehovah’s Witness family. Citing the Bible, Witnesses don’t believe in pledging to “graven images” such as flags and thus refused to take part in the ritual. Their children were often expelled from school as a result.
Thanks to the Barnette ruling, it’s clear that students can’t be required to take part in the Pledge if they have a religious, philosophical or political objection. Whether they can be made to stand silently is a separate question, but the principles laid down in Barnette would seem to say no.
One legal site says, “The Supreme Court hasn’t directly addressed the issue of students refusing to stand for the pledge or the national anthem – clear examples of symbolic speech. But federal appellate courts have agreed that public schools may not force students to stand during the pledge.”
In any case, Maddox’s “investigation” into why students aren’t standing could easily be construed as a form of harassment or pressure to take part in the Pledge. Board members and school administrators would be wise to stay out of this constitutional thicket; chances are they won’t emerge unscathed.
Rather than spend time on a fruitless investigation that’s obviously designed to coerce high school students to take part in a by-rote patriotic ritual, Dothan school officials would do better to boost their civics instruction and help students understand their constitutional rights and the role dissent and protest play in a free society.