Saturday, November 21, 2009
AMHERST - Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez and the School Committee would much rather deal with educational issues than get tangled up in the question of whether teachers have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.
At Tuesday's committee meeting, Rodriguez said he would send an email message to teachers notifying them that a state law requires them to lead daily recitations of the pledge. But on Friday, after learning that this law is in legal limbo, Rodriguez said he would like to consult the schools' attorney before acting on "this very thorny issue."
"Are we going to get into enforcing a law when we know that the moment it's challenged, we're going to be on the losing side?" Rodriguez said. With budgets tight, it makes more sense to spend the schools' limited resources on children, rather than on attorneys' fees, he said.
"The School Committee needs to make judicious choices about how to spend our dollars," he said.
The issue arose at Tuesday's School Committee meeting when member Catherine Sanderson said some parents have asked her why the district is changing its policies to obey state laws about clustering students by ethnicity while ignoring another state law about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Massachusetts General Laws read in part: "Each teacher at the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools shall lead the class in a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance."
But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in 1977 that this law is unconstitutional, and a school system cannot require teachers to recite the pledge, said William Newman, a Northampton attorney who heads the western Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rodriguez said Tuesday that compliance with the law in Amherst is "inconsistent."
The superintendent, who arrived in Amherst from Florida in July, said Tuesday that the Pledge of Allegiance should be important to educators because they are giving young children a sense of what is important.
"I'm from the South, where we salute the flag and say, 'Thank you, ma'am' and 'No, sir,'" he said. Rodriguez said he is not accustomed to "some of the stuff that seems to be cultural" in Amherst, citing the tolerance of the annual marijuana festival on the town common.
"I'm all for law and order and making sure we salute the flag," Rodriguez said.
News of the School Committee discussion set off a flurry of comments on Sanderson's blog. While many criticized the pledge as indoctrination, especially its phrase "under God," others said citizens can't choose which laws to obey.
"The pledge is not about what America is, it's about what America should be," wrote Rick Hood, a candidate for School Committee.
The best option is to "let sleeping dogs lie," because the schools have many more pressing issues to deal with, said Andrew Churchill, chairman of the Amherst School Committee. He said he recited the Pledge of Allegiance in school every day when he was young.
"I don't feel I was improved or harmed by it," he said Friday. "But what does it really mean to pledge allegiance to a flag? Personally, I'd rather have us sing 'America the Beautiful' every morning. The bottom line is I don't think this is a big issue, and we have bigger fish to fry."
Sanderson said Thursday that she doesn't have strong feelings about whether or not teachers recite the pledge, and agreed that the School Committee has more important issues to grapple with.
"But to me, not saying the pledge, when it is the law, strikes me as emblematic of a broader concern I have about the schools - that somehow we in Amherst believe that we are so unique that rules and laws and curriculum and policies used in other districts don't apply to us and how we do education," she said.
According to attorney Newman of the ACLU, although the law is on the books, it is unenforceable.
Teachers may lead their classes in recitations of the pledge, but students may remain quiet and can't be ordered out of the room, Newman said.
"No school system can require a teacher to lead the class in the pledge, and no student can be compelled to participate if a teacher should choose to say the pledge," he said.
This issue became a sideshow in the 1988 presidential campaign. Former Gov. Michael Dukakis had vetoed a Massachusetts law that would have required teachers to lead students in the pledge, citing the 1977 Supreme Judicial Court opinion. The Legislature then passed the law over his veto, Newman said.
"The law sits on the books but was declared unconstitutional before it was enacted," he said.
As a presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush used the incident to impugn Dukakis' patriotism, and many voters missed the fact that the law he vetoed had been ruled unconstitutional, Newman said.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a Florida law that requires all students to stand and recite the pledge unless excused in writing by a parent.
In 1977, the Massachusetts court wrote: "A majority of the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court made answer that as applied to teachers, bill which would require each teacher at the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools to lead the class in a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag would violate the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution, even if under the proposed bill there would be no criminal penalties against non-complying teachers, since there would still be an element of compulsion on a teacher inherent in the existence of the statutory mandate."
Nick Grabbe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.