When it comes to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, the rules are simple: If you want to say it, fine. If you don’t, fine. No one can force to stand up, put your hand over your heart, or say it at all.
Last year, the superintendent of Florida’s Santa Rosa County District Schools got angry after he realized there were signs on classroom walls reminding students of their rights with regard to the Pledge. They said: “Students are invited to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our country, but they are not required to do so.”
He seriously got upset about that.
Those signs weren’t unique to the district, though. Florida law explicitly states
Each student shall be informed by posting a notice in a conspicuous place that the student has the right not to participate in reciting the pledge.
(The same law also says: “Upon written request by his or her parent, the student must be excused from reciting the pledge.” That wording is a little odd, since you don’t need your parents’ permission at all to skip the Pledge, but I suppose if they submitted a written request, students could also be excused from it.)
So when Florida legislators announced that they were going to change that statute, it sounded like good news. Unfortunately, their revision only made things worse:
… Representatives Mike Hill (R-Pensacola Beach) and Doug Broxson (R-Gulf Breeze) and Sen. Greg Evers drafted a new statue that clarifies the existing law.
“I feel reasonably sure we can get the bill through hurriedly,” Evers said.
If passed, the new statute will allow students to submit a written request to their school to be excused from saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It will also limit the posting of students’ rights on this matter to the school’s student handbooks.
Got that? The completely unnecessary written request to get out of saying the Pledge was still in place, and the signs on the wall were replaced with an announcement in the student handbook that saying the Pledge was optional.
The change basically meant that students would have a harder time knowing about their options.
Because of this change, last week, the Central Florida Freethought Community and American Atheists sent a letter to every superintendent in the state reminding them that they must include a notification about the Pledge opt-out in their handbooks next year, and there could be legal ramifications if they don’t include it:
In accordance with Florida statute §1003.44, we request assurance that: 1. written notices will be placed in your district’s student handbook(s) that inform students of their right not to participate — by saying or standing — in the pledge, and in cases where students cannot read or need special accommodation, oral or other means of communication be used to tell students of their constitutional rights not to participate; 2. that staff be instructed that under no circumstances should they attempt to persuade students to refrain from exercising their right to nonparticipation, question students about their nonparticipation, or characterize opting out as misconduct or unpatriotic; and 3. that no disciplinary or other retaliatory measures of any kind be taken toward any student for nonparticipation in pledge rituals.
We will, after the start of the 2016-2017 school year, request a copy of your district’s student handbook(s) to verify compliance with Florida’s law requiring your district to notify students of their rights under the Constitution.
That’s not a threat. That’s a reminder to follow the law.
But a reminder that students don’t have to say the Pledge is enough to sound the alarms at Fox News Channel.
Yesterday, on Fox & Friends, host Tucker Carlson spoke with a Florida public school teacher, Debi Zacharias, about the travesty of a law reminding students they’re not required to participate in the ritual. And the four-minute segment just kept getting worse…
CARLSON: Of all the problems besetting America, and there’s so many I’m not going to begin the list, why do atheists believe saying the Pledge of Allegiance is such a massive problem in this country?
Let’s just stop there for a second. Let me remind you that this change was prompted by Republicans in the Florida legislature, not atheists. And this isn’t about the Pledge, per se; it’s about whether students should be forced to say we’re a nation “under God,” or that there’s justice “for all,” or damn near anything that says you’re pledging allegiance to a country whose leaders make decisions you don’t always agree with.
This is settled law. It was decided by the Supreme Court more than 70 years ago. And it wasn’t atheists fighting the battle at the time; it was Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But according to Carlson, this is a fictional problem started by atheists.
Zacharias responded by referencing how the Pledge is “hundreds” of years old. (Which is a shocker to those of us who know it was written in 1892.)
The conversation then went exactly where you’d expect: Zacharias claimed that saying the Pledge is patriotic. As if reciting words from memory because you’re forced to is a sign of freedom.
Personally, I’d argue it’s far more patriotic to exercise your First Amendment rights by staying seated.
When Carlson later read his guest the portion of the atheists’ letter that said it was perfectly legal for students to stay seated (and they didn’t owe anyone an explanation for it), she offered the strangest line in the whole segment:
Well, actually, this has been brought up several times through history, as far as it being a Constitutional right to stand or not to stand for the Pledge, and to say or not to say the Pledge, but actually, all of that has been null and void because they have proven that it is constitutional to stand for the Pledge.
… the hell?
No one ever said it was illegal for students to stand for the Pledge if they wanted to. That’s not what this argument is about.
Carlson didn’t question her statement at all. Instead, he asked why atheists were “imposing their views on the rest of us.”
That’s when the smoke started coming out of my head.
Having the option of staying seated for the Pledge is in no way imposing anything on the rest of the class. If anything, it’s Carlson and Zacharias, who clearly want to force students to stand up and say the Pledge, who are imposing their will on everyone else.
But Carlson kept going after atheists:
How decadent is that? How decadent to attack the country that makes this conversation possible in the first place.
You know, Fox News could easily have invited someone from either of the two atheist groups to offer an alternative, reasonable perspective. Instead, we got a conversation with two ignorant people who had no idea what they were talking about.
It was irresponsible journalism and typical Fox News fare.