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Supreme Court's decision to review the pledge could change Missouri schools

November 05, 2003
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -Every day at elementary schools across Missouri, 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 impact a Missouri law requiring the pledge in schools.

The state law, adopted in 2002 after a unanimous vote in the Senate, requires for school children to have the opportunity to recite the pledge at least once a week, while allowing for 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 of the books.

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

Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, said that the state should not mandate local schools' actions. "I think that teachers and local schoolboards should decide on saying the pledge of allegiance, whatever form that takes," Wilson said. Wilson was one of only 9 of the state's 145 representatives who opposed the bill.

More than 30 states require the pledge during the school day. A Supreme Court decision in the 1940s declared it unconstitutional to require individuals to say the pledge or 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 that 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. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Congressman Todd Akin, R-M0 intoduced 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.

U.S. 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 recitiation of the pledge in schools violate students' First Amendment right to freely express themselves.

And Missouri's law could suffer a similar fate dependent upon the Supreme Court's ruling.

"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," said Dr. Bill Fisch, professor of constitutional law at MU.

To some Missouri lawmakers, this would be unfortunate.

"We start our legislative session everyday with a prayer, our currency refers to God; I don't wee why our pledge of allegiance can't show faith in God," said Shields.

The Supreme Court is set to review the case next year.