Northwest High School students Claire Hughes, Molly Stuckmeyer and Hannah Nashfrom with Missouri Rep. Shane Roden.
Northwest High School students Claire Hughes, Molly Stuckmeyer and Hannah Nashfrom with Missouri Rep. Shane Roden. | courtesy of Rep. Shane Roden

Missouri enacts new Pledge law

The state of Missouri implemented a new law this week allowing students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day instead of just once a week.

As the nation debates San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s Aug. 26 refusal to stand for the national anthem, analysts say the Missouri law is another example of ongoing controversies about the proper role of various American patriotic rituals.
 
Under the new Missouri law, the pledge will be optional, not mandatory: Students still have the right to neither stand nor recite the pledge.
 
The legislation is the result of the work of four students in a high school government Advanced Placement class at Northwest High School in Cedar Hill. Claire Hughes, Brendan Fennell, Molly Stuckmeyer and Hannah Nashfrom discovered two years ago that Missouri school students were not necessarily reciting the pledge each day. The law only required it once a week.
 
The students set out to change that and contacted their state representative, Shane Roden, a Republican from Jefferson County, southwest of St. Louis County. Roden listened and introduced a bill during both the 2015 and 2016 sessions. The 2015 version did not pass after a House amendment required the recitation in English. This year, the bill passed without the English language requirement.
 
“The students saw that this was a form of patriotism that should be done daily,” Roden said. “They thought it was wrong to just be doing it weekly and wanted to change it so everyone had the opportunity to recite it each day.”  
 
The new law requires all Missouri schools that receive public funding to allow time at least once a day for students to recite the pledge. The law also allows flags to be voluntarily donated for display in each classroom.
 
“There is no punishment for a student who wants to opt out,” Roden said. “There also is no penalty if a school district is found to not be in compliance. If a parent complains, of course they can cite the law and the school will have to adjust. And if a school doesn’t have a flag, parents can donate flags or seek someone to donate. We can’t mandate that flags are in each classroom on the state level without paying for it.”
 
Roden’s legislation, which had bi-partisan support and no opposition voiced during committee hearings, became part of a larger Senate education bill (Senate Bill 638). One component requires Missouri students in both public and private schools to pass an American civics exam similar to the U.S. Citizenship exam prior to graduating.
 
“I do believe reciting the pledge should be tied into further understanding of why we do it,” Roden said. “There's a lack of understanding of where the pledge even came from and its original purpose. It was written in the 1890s as a way to unify our country after the Civil War. There was a great divide and it was a way to be united again.

“For me, it's also tied to the events in Ferguson and what is going on elsewhere in the country. Our country is so divided and we need to be united under something. That's the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance, to unite us as one country.”
 
Roden said the process was a learning experience not only for the students but for himself as a lawmaker.

“The students took it upon themselves to contact my office and it was a good start for my first year as a lawmaker,” he said. “It helped me learn the bill process and how to listen to district constituents to affect change. And the students were able to see the process firsthand when the entire government class came up to the capitol and saw the bill go through the perfection stage. They also were able to lead the Missouri House in the pledge that day.”

In a random sampling of school districts around the state, the law seems to be a non-issue. Most districts queried said students have been reciting the pledge in some way at all levels. Some districts said elementary students already were reciting the pledge daily, while middle and high schools were meeting the once-a-week requirement.

However, any requirement continues to be an issue for some. Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the legislation is an infringement on students’ rights.

“The Missouri law language is consistent with current constitutional law,” Luchenitser said. “Either way, it still imposes the pledge on students. No student should ever be compelled to recite the pledge. We oppose the ‘under God’ part of it specifically but we recognize that it’s not likely to be struck down by the courts in the near future.

“Still, if a student doesn’t want to participate based on their religious beliefs or other ideals, it’s hard not to do without being visible. They might be singled out, made fun of or bullied. They probably will feel more peer pressure in elementary school and forced to stand up and pledge to something they don’t believe in.”

Cynthia Holmes, president of the St. Louis chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the requirement takes time away from other education.

“I think it’s silly and unnecessary,” Holmes said. “It’s wasting precious resources and two to three minutes each day that could be used to teach something worthwhile. It’s not going to make students any more patriotic or religious. You can’t tie repetition to a civics lesson. It’s 15 to 20 minutes a week that they could be teaching math and science.”

As of 2006, the last time the First Amendment Center collected data, 43 states had some type of requirement. Charles Haynes, who is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, a contributor to the First Amendment Center, and an expert on First Amendment issues related to public schools, said that as of 2015, only five states had not passed legislation. Haynes said Oklahoma recently took action while Wyoming, Iowa, Vermont and Hawaii do not have laws on the books.

“Post-9/11, there was a resurgence in states requiring it and people wanting it,” Haynes said. “There was a lot of reasserting and renewing of patriotism. Legislators like to do symbolic things in the wake of tragedy and learning about the country. The pledge is a symbolic way to do that. While the ‘under God’ language has been challenged many times, the right of states to require patriotic exercises is not being challenged now.”

Haynes said the sad part is that the exercises are not accompanied with lessons.

“We really don’t help students understand what it is that they’re pledging,” Haynes said. “We need to make them think about why or why they don’t do it. We need to teach them that the flag itself represents their right to stand and do it, but it also represents the rights of the people who have the freedom of conscience to not pledge to the flag. It’s just treated as a ritual rather than an opportunity to learn about the principles of our country and what the flag stands for.”

Haynes cited the backlash against Kaepernick as a reason the citizenry lacks an understanding of the country’s founding principles.
 
“His right to dissent is in the flag, more than any other flag in the world,” Haynes said. “It’s one of the first principles of American freedom. This American protesting is actually proving the core American principle. People who stand are partly celebrating his right to not stand. If people understood that, they wouldn’t be demonizing him. He has a right and is protected and we should salute the fact that our principles protect that.”
 
However, Haynes said civics education has taken a back seat to feel-good symbolic legislation. But he praised Missouri lawmakers for at least including a civics component in its new law.
 
“If they added additional requirements where education was lacking, kudos to them,” Haynes said. “Civics education is where it really counts. They need to reinforce learning with the exercises. Missouri’s testing is better than nothing.

“The U.S. Citizenship test is fairly easy but it’s a good start. We have an illiterate citizenry regarding our country’s principles and ideals. We should be aiming higher than just the minimal competency. In today’s America, we need something that unites us. Our civic convictions, our founding principles are ultimately what hold us together.”