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The federal court ruling prohibiting the Pledge of Allegiance from public schools came as a shock to many, but probably not to anyone familiar with the pledge's history. When it comes to the pledge in civic and religious life, the unexpected seems to be the norm. After all, this ruling comes mere months after the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill requiring all schools, public and private, to offer the pledge in every classroom on every day. Now, in a case unrelated to the Pennsylvania bill, we are told just the opposite: the pledge may never be recited in any classroom on any day. Such controversy is nothing new to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The pledge was written in 1892, and shortly thereafter dozens of school districts made its recitation mandatory. The first school children to refuse were Mennonites concerned that the pledge implied a military commitment. At that time, the pledge was part of a "flag salute ceremony" in which students raised their right arms toward the flag while reciting the words—the salute only reinforced Mennonite suspicions of military implications.

In the 1930s, Jehovah's Witnesses began to refuse the pledge as well as an act of solidarity with Witnesses in Germany facing Nazi persecution. How could American Witnesses salute a national flag when fellow believers were being sent to concentration camps for refusing much the same thing? The ACLU filed suit on behalf of Witness children who had been suspended for pledge refusal. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), the Supreme Court found mandatory pledges constitutional, resulting in an outbreak of violence against Witnesses. As a result of this violence, but also because forcing children to pledge looked a little too ...

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July 2002

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