Words can be powerful things, but are they always enough?
Iowa House File 415 would require accredited and non-accredited K-12 schools to administer the pledge on a daily basis and to show the U.S. flag while the pledge is recited. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that forcing students to recite the pledge is a violation of the First Amendment, so students and parents could opt out. The bill passed 91-3.
The bill’s sponsor, freshman Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel, rejected arguments that the bill imposes another mandate on schools. Rather, it could be “an opportunity for teachers to begin teaching the real meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.” Iowa, he added, is one of a few states without a law addressing the pledge.
“We don’t pledge our allegiance to a government. We don’t pledge our allegiance to a person or leader,” Nordman said. “We pledge our loyalty to an idea, the American idea.”
We agree with that ideal (though it seems there are two political parties who feel they have dominion over what the definition of the "American idea" is, but that is for a different editorial).
We're not saying we're 100% against this idea, but we have questions. First, which version of the pledge will be required? The original version written in August 1892 by the Rev. Francis Bellamy, a socialist, which read: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Or will it be the 1932 version: "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Our assumption, which could be wrong, is that it will be the 1954 version, when, in response to the "Communist threat," President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- along with a lobbying campaign by the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus -- "encouraged" Congress to add to words "under God" to the pledge: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
This is where things get murky because of that whole "separation of church and state" thing.
If schools are required to administer the pledge, do they then put themselves in an actionable situation if a non-Christian family decides to take the matter to court? What defenses are being afforded Iowa's schools to protect themselves in court? Does telling a parent "your child can opt out" really release the school from a lawsuit?
In addition, opting out does not always come without societal repercussions. An example of this is the harassment experienced by some student athletes who chose to "opt out" of the tradition of standing during the national anthem at sports events in peaceful protest for racial equality. For them, "opting out" meant taking a knee. The result in some cases, including photos of them exercising their right to "opt out" being posted on social media where they became the subject to ridicule and, sometimes, threats.
We have to ask ourselves if: One, this will create yet another situation that forces teachers to become police officers in their classes to ensure their students' privacy and safety is not being jeopardized, and two, are we adding yet another pressure to students who are already dealing with the difficulties of school, bullying, peer pressure, cyber-security, and a pandemic, among other things? Today's students are not the same as the generation before them, as the generation of students before them weren't the same as the one before them and so on. Just because something was done a certain way "when we were kids," doesn't always mean it should be the same today. Otherwise, all of our students would have been walking to school through the freezing temps and snow with no mittens and sandwich bags on their shoes. We need to allow for societal changes in the way we approach the standards for our youth today.
It should be noted that three Democrat lawmakers voted for the bill. Rep. Christina Bohannan, a Democrat from Iowa City said that reciting the pledge may cause students to think critically about the pledge and whether the nation is living up to those words.
“Our kids might ask whether our republic can last when many of our leaders refuse to denounce those who subvert our democracy,” the University of Iowa law professor said. “They might ask how can we be one nation indivisible if those in power pass election laws to suppress the votes of their fellow Americans. They might ask whether we have liberty and justice for all if transgender people are denied their liberties and Black Iowans are more than 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.”
That may provide a lesson in what makes America great, Nordman said.
“We can be on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum,” he said. “We can disagree. We can have those debates. But at the end of the day, we all know we’re united under one flag.”
It's an idealistic notion, which isn't a bad thing. We would love for our state and our country to be more united. But it takes more than words to get there.
And how united can we truly be, though, if we have to pass a law that forces our schools to administer what is essentially a belief? Reciting forced words does not necessarily instill patriotism anymore than wrapping the American flag around anything that doesn't move does.
If Iowa lawmakers want our youth to grow into a greater sense of pride in Iowa and America, perhaps they should consider whether or not the actions they take will one day give our students a reason to be proud of their state and their country. Anything else is just words.