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Civil Liberties

Michigan Republicans Introduce Bill that Forces Students to Recite Pledge of Allegiance

Republican state lawmakers in Michigan have proposed a controversial bill that would force  public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

According to the South Bend Tribune, State Sen. Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw) introduced SB 637, which would also mandate an American flag in every classroom in the state.

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

“The board of a school district… shall ensure that each pupil in each public school it operates is required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States each school day,” the bill reads.

SB 637 has predictably stirred up controversy, and not just for the reasons you’d expect.

“The ‘under God’ is far less important to me than the entire sense that requiring the Pledge of Allegiance is just plain wrong,” Arlene Marie, state director of the Michigan Atheists, told the South Bend Tribune. “It is divisive and there are many reasons why parents would not want their children to say the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Marie argued that many children aren’t even old enough to understand a pledge  to anything, and that some religions, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, forbid adherents from taking oaths.

“Many children in our public schools are not even citizens of this country,” she told the Tribune. 

But others support the proposed bill. “At an early age, children should begin to develop an appreciation for the nation and for what the flag of the United States represents,” Douglas Williams, legislative affairs chairman for the American Legion, argued before the Senate Education Committee last month. “The flag of the United States is an important symbol of this nation and respect for the flag of the United States is a foundation upon which to build an understanding of the sacrifices made by the nation’s forefathers and veterans.”

But forcing public school children to recite the Pledge, which was written by socialist minister Francis Bellamy in 1892, has been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the Court found that “compulsory unification of opinion” violates the First Amendment.

“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,” Justice Robert Jackson wrote for the majority. “We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”

After “under God” was added to the Pledge by an act of Congress in 1954 in a reactionary move to draw contrast between the U.S. and godless communist nations, First Amendment-based objections to reciting the Pledge gained even more legitimacy.

The Supreme Court has also ruled that mandating recitation of the Pledge is unconstitutional unless parents are able to opt out of it. Michigan’s SB 637 does allow this.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to a New Hampshire law that requires schools to set aside time for voluntary recitation of the Pledge.

Many schools across the nation, from Oberlin, Ohio to Arlington, Massachusetts, no longer recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And it’s not just schools who are refusing to pledge: witness San Francisco city supervisor Jane Kim, who refuses to join her ten fellow supervisors in reciting the oath at the opening of board meetings. “I don’t believe we are a nation with liberty and justice for all — yet,” Kim told the San Francisco Examiner.  “So a lot of my work is motivated by wanting to be a part of achieving that ideal.”

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