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‘Under God’ under review

Supreme Court ruling
could nullify state law
Thursday, November 6, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:00 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 25, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Every day at elementary schools across Columbia, students stand facing the flag to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

However, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the words “under God,” could affect a Missouri law requiring the pledge in schools.

The state law, adopted in 2002 after a unanimous vote in the Senate, requires schoolchildren to have the opportunity to recite the pledge at least once a week, while allowing objectors to be excused.

Bill Fisch, professor of constitutional law at MU, said that if the Supreme Court declares the pledge unconstitutional, Missouri laws regarding recitation of the pledge would have to be taken off the books.

“I think it’s important that students have some degree of nationalism,” said Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, about saying the pledge in schools.

Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, said the state should not mandate local schools’ actions.

“I think that teachers and local school boards should decide on saying the pledge of allegiance, whatever form that takes,” said Wilson, one of nine of the state’s 145 representatives who opposed the bill.

More than 30 states require that the pledge be recited during the school day. A Supreme Court decision in the 1940s declared it was unconstitutional to require individuals to say it or to punish them for not saying it.

Kathy Ritter, assistant principal of Rock Bridge High School, said, “We invite students to stand and say the pledge, but we clearly don’t force them.”

But some say this is not enough.

“Students do have the right to opt out,” said Jeremy Leaming, communications associate for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “Unfortunately it’s something that most students probably do not take advantage of.”

These sentiments gained momentum last year when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that the phrase “under God” violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits Congress from making laws that respect the establishment of religion.

This clause commonly referred to as the “establishment clause” has been used to separate church and state.

“I always perceived that that provision was put in there not to protect government from the church but to protect the church from the government,” said Shields.

Missouri lawmakers in Washington were among the most opposed to the court’s decision. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., introduced the “Pledge Protection Act,” a bill aimed at protecting the pledge by restricting lower federal courts like the one in California from ruling on it.

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Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo.

Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., drafted a companion bill to Akin’s that would guarantee the right of children to say the phrase “under God” when they recite the pledge. Both bills, however, have been blocked, allowing lower courts to continue to rule on the pledge.

Other states have followed California’s lead. In Pennsylvania and Colorado, judges have ruled that each state’s statutes mandating the recitation of the pledge in schools violate students’ First Amendment right to freely express themselves.

And Missouri’s law could suffer a similar fate depending on how the Supreme Court rules.

“If the Supreme Court rules that the phrase is unconstitutional, then clearly the fact that the school system is leading the recitation of the pledge would be a violation of the establishment clause, whether or not any student were compelled to say the words out loud,” Fisch, the constitutional law professor, said.

To some Missouri lawmakers, this would be unfortunate.

“We start our legislative session every day with a prayer; our currency refers to God,” said Shields. “I don’t know why our Pledge of Allegiance can’t show faith in God.”


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