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On the Pledge, the protests, patriotism, and the past

The St. Louis Park brouhaha over the Pledge recalls its colorful, somewhat checkered past — including turbulence here in Minnesota during the governorship nearly two decades ago of Jesse Ventura.

American flag
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The firestorm that accompanied the announcement last month by the city of St. Louis Park that it would no longer begin City Council meetings with the traditional recital of the Pledge of Allegiance echoes past controversies here and elsewhere. The city’s decision was based on the view that the mantra, particularly with its reference to a deity, is not “welcoming” for the “diverse community” comprising the 45,000-resident inner-ring suburb.

Dropping the Pledge was greeted with almost universal condemnation; few who approved it spoke out publicly in support of the ban. The criticism was so swift, spirited, spontaneous, solid, and strong, that officials in The Park hastened to place recantation of the decision on the council’s agenda for its informal study session on Monday. Dozens of people protested at the session; no vote was taken on the issue but, the Star Tribune reported, “two proposals were introduced to either reverse the decision or continue the discussion with involvement from the community.” So we’re left with the distinct possibility that the council may consider a do-over.

The controversy even caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday morning tweeted his support of those who were outraged by the prohibition.

Although not directly related, the pledge scenario is traceable to the “take-a-knee” protests of “The Star Spangled Banner” instigated by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and some primarily African-American football players and other athletes, which has spread to other high-profile players and venues. They include women’s U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who added to her prominence by declining to participate in the pre-game ritual during the recently concluded World Cup series in France, in which the American squad, led by her kicking prowess, defeated all seven foes, capped off with a stunning 2-0 victory, over The Netherlands to successfully defend its world title, sparked by Rapinoe’s key initial goal in last Sunday’s championship game.

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Pledge past

The brouhaha in the Park over the Pledge, rather one-sided this time around, recalled its colorful, somewhat checkered past, including turbulence here in Minnesota during the governorship nearly two decades ago of Jesse Ventura, for whom tumult was a vast understatement.

Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick
The current version of the Pledge is known by heart by nearly everyone, unlike other longer and more complex expressions of emotional patriotic fervor such the “Star Spangled Banner,” the national anthem that most people can sing the first few passages of (Oh, say can you see…”) — and then start murmuring the unmemorable remaining words.

But, to paraphrase erstwhile presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, “there’s a story for that.” The tale starts with dueling Pledges, the first created by a Union general during the Civil War, and the other by Francis Bellamy, a late 19th-century self-proclaimed Baptist “Christian Socialist” minister, who labeled the general’s Pledge “too juvenile” and undignified, and drafted one that closely resembles the modern version.

The latter was endorsed in 1923 at a gathering of flag enthusiasts and officially adopted by Congress in 1942, during the height of patriotic sentiment in the midst of World War II.

Reacting to another type of wartime fervor, the surge of anti-Communism during the Cold War, Congress added the “under God” phrase in the text of the Pledge, a reference to a deity that was, surprisingly, not part of the format authored by the Baptist cleric — although it was in the predecessor version he deemed infantile.

Ventura’s view

The Minnesota governor at the turn of the millennium waded into the controversy, although unlike other contretemps during his four-year term from 1999-2003, this was not of his own making. It occurred in May 2002 as the legislative session drew to a close, the final one during Ventura’s tenure.

The lawmakers passed a bill requiring all school districts to require the recitation of the Pledge in public schools at least once weekly. The measure did not significantly break new ground, as numerous districts or individual schools in Minnesota already mandated or urged schools to recite the Pledge on a regular basis and, around the nation, about half of the state’s had similar mandates while a large number of other school districts recommended it be done.

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But Ventura had a differing view. Although no fan of compelled religious observance, the governor did not object on that ground. In one of his final actions, he vetoed the measure on different grounds, explaining that he disdained forced patriotism. In vetoing the measure, the ex-Navy seal (and professional wrestler and broadcaster) explained that expressions of patriotism should come “from the heart … by choice,” rather than governmental compulsion.

Ventura’s veto was never challenged, and the proposition has remained dormant since the governor returned to the private sector and his retreat in Mexico. But school districts, individual schools, and educators remain free to invoke the Pledge in their classrooms, provided that students are not compelled to participate or punished for not doing so, notwithstanding any social approbation or ostracism they might experience for their reticence.

That proviso is an important one, indeed essential. While the courts have virtually uniformly rejected parental challenges to the Pledge in schools on grounds of violation of the freedom of expression and religion provisions of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, they do require that, in adherence to those constitutional clauses, children must be given the option of not participating in the Pledge. They generally reason that, like the “In God We Trust” reference on currency, daily religious invocations by clerics in Congress, and the unofficial but traditional “so help me God” remark in the presidential Oath of Office, the reference to a deity, is, as one court propounded, a “historical tradition,” rather than imbued with religious expression.

An unusual pair of Supreme Court rulings

But the opt-out feature for schoolchildren and, presumably, anyone else at public meetings, including future City Council sessions ones in St. Louis St. Louis Park if the Pledge is reinstated, is mandated by an unusual pair of rulings years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.

After initially upholding a mandatory Pledge requirement for public school students in 1940 in a Pennsylvania case entitled Gobitis v. Minersville School District, it recanted a bare three years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, eschewing a religious-based analysis but deeming the required recitation a violation of the First Amendment freedom of expression rights of objecting students, before the “under God” phrase was inserted more than a decade later.

The St. Louis Park roller-coaster experience in the last few weeks draws upon all of these features in recognizing both the forcefulness of the Pledge and its frailties.

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Meanwhile, Kaepernick is back in the news, too. The state of Georgia last week yanked a favorable financial package for construction of a Nike facility in that state in response to the shoe manufacturer taking off the market a new design adorned with the Betsy Ross 13 Stars and Stripes Flag, reportedly because of the objection on racial grounds of one of Nike’s million-dollar endorsers, the ex-QB Kaepernick himself.

With that tempest brewing, and given the calumny St. Louis Park has encountered, it’s unlikely that any other governmental units, cities or school alike, will venture into that maelstrom at any time soon. Rather, they are likely to give their continued allegiance to the Pledge.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and historian. 


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