Pledge Provocation: What's Wrong With Knowing Your Rights?

Recently, the Fox News Channel rang up the Rev. Barry Lynn, AU's executive director, to discuss what he thinks about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

Since they asked, he answered.

"The Pledge of Allegiance creates a constitutional problem," he said. "You have to tell students they can opt out."

For some reason, this statement has generated some controversy – as if it is so reprehensible to want to educate students about their rights!

Today, my colleague Rob Boston appeared on Fox's show "America's Newsroom" to clear up a few things.

He said this is not about whether the Pledge does or doesn't belong in the classroom – that is left for another day. This is simply about informing students that they are not required to stand and recite the Pledge if it goes against their moral, political or religious beliefs. He recommended that this be done via a student handbook or information sent home to parents, just as schools clarify other student rights and responsibilities.

Rob also pointed out that informing students of their rights upfront can help head off lawsuits down the line – a laudable goal.

This is nothing new. The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that schools cannot require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance back in 1943. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the high court declared unconstitutional West Virginia's statute requiring all school students to salute the flag.

"[N]o official," the court wrote, "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."

So what is the problem with informing students about this decision?

I can tell you what the problem is with NOT informing teachers, students and parents about it.

When I worked as a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, we helped an eighth-grade student who chose not to stand for the Pledge at his public school. As a Jehovah's Witness, he knew it was against his religious beliefs to partake in saluting the flag. He also knew his rights.

Unfortunately, his teachers did not. When his teacher noticed he refused to stand, she ridiculed this student in front of the class and demanded he stand for the Pledge the next day. She went so far as to announce before his peers that he was "unpatriotic" and unsupportive of her son, who was fighting in Afghanistan.

Later that week, other teachers and students began harassing the boy as well. He explained to them that he had a right not to stand, but they didn't believe or accept it.

Fortunately, one sharply-worded letter to the school from the ACLU cleared things up. But considering the Supreme Court issued the Barnette decision 66 years ago, that should not have been necessary.

Nor should an issue resolved in the 1940s still be making headlines. But the fact that some people are bound and determined to manufacture controversy over an innocuous statement by Lynn just further proves how badly Americans really are in need of knowing their rights.