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Editorial: The pledge and the past

The recent concern about the Pledge of Allegiance policy at Rindge Memorial School had us asking some questions, particularly about the history of the pledge because, as always, a deeper understanding of the history gives us a broader sense of the implications.

At Rindge Memorial School this year, the previous policy of broadcasting the pledge over the intercom each morning was discontinued in favor of allowing each teacher to work it into their class’s day. School officials said this was done to save time. This brought a large number of concerned parents to a Jaffrey-Rindge School Board meeting earlier this month to air their concerns, and as a result the original policy was restored.

The Pledge was composed by American writer Francis Bellamy in 1892. Ballamy began his career as a Baptist minister, but his socialist views made him unpopular. He was related to Edward Bellamy, a leader of the Nationalist movement that sought to nationalize the economy and public services. After being ousted from the pulpit, Francis Bellamy went to work for The Youth’s Companion magazine in Boston.

The Youth’s Companion sold U.S. flags to public schools, as well as magazine subscriptions. As part of a campaign to have flags raised above every schoolhouse in America, the magazine initiated a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery that would include a flag salute on Columbus Day. That’s when Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, which was published in the magazine in 1892, and it was adopted by Congress in 1942.

Beginning in 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing from families of various religious faiths objections to having their children recite the pledge. The 1940 case involved Jehovah’s Witnesses, who considered it idolatry. The Court ruled that the Pledge was compulsory, but reversed that decision in 1943, deciding that it violates the First Amendment. Compulsory standing during the pledge was also deemed illegal.

The “under God” portion of the pledge was not added until the 1950s in the midst of the Cold War and concern about the spread of communism. And in 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston upheld a New Hampshire federal court decision that the reference to God is not a violation of student rights.

Not all of the states require schools to recite the pledge, but New Hampshire does. In 2002 in the wake of 9/11, the Legislature passed the School Patriot Act, which requires schools to make time for it during the school day. According to the act, “Pupil participation in the recitation of the pledge of allegiance shall be voluntary. Pupils not participating in the recitation of the pledge of allegiance may silently stand or remain seated but shall be required to respect the rights of those pupils electing to participate.” The stated purpose of the act is to continue the state’s policy of teaching the country’s history in public schools.

The pledge has come to mean many things for many people in its 120 years. As Sheila Nagle of Rindge said at the School Board meeting on Nov. 7, “A lot of us have siblings or relatives somewhere that serve in the military and we feel students should be saying this.” We hope students at RMS and elsewhere will have the opportunity to explore the history behind the pledge and decide what it means to them. That’s the only way the tradition will continue to be held in esteem. Otherwise it’s in danger of becoming a mindless chant teachers are forced to make time for and youth can’t really appreciate.

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