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Public speaks out on mandatory Pledge of Allegiance effort
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
October 24, 2001

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have expressed their patriotism in different ways. One of those is a move in some states - including New York, Wisconsin, and now Minnesota - to require elementary school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school. St. Paul School Board member Tom Conlon wants to make the pledge mandatory in all of the district's 70 schools. Residents have voiced their opinions on the measure.

Minnesota state law doesn't prohibit any school from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom, but only a handful are doing it. That may be about to change.

Just last week, after pressure from the local American Legion, the Rosemount-Eagan-Apple Valley district voted to make the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory in its schools. St. Paul School Board member Tom Conlon wants his district to follow suit.

Like the Rosemount-Eagan measure, Conlon's motion allows any child to opt out for religious or any other reason. Conlon told the school board the pledge can be a unifying force.

"We are a very diverse culture, we have a very diverse school district, and our students come from many different backgrounds. And I think the beauty of the pledge is that it's the one time - the one opportunity - where we put all that aside, and we say we're Americans, we're here for a common purpose, a common cause. It's diversity at its best," he said.

Once the public comment period got going, first to speak was school board candidate Georgia Dietz. She began with a plea for the entire audience to take the pledge.

About 50 people showed up for the meeting, including a dozen veterans wearing militiray hats and some holding flags. But, nearly as many people came to voice their opposition.

Carl Quella said he's against the measure. He calls it "idolatrous and blasphemous because it involves a worship-like relationship toward a material object. It's blasphemous because it implies that the actions of the government and the state carry with them the authority of God, and I think we've been around long enough to know better than that," Quella said.

A number of speakers cited the Sept. 11th attacks as reason to support the pledge. Greg Copeland gave a fiery speech about why he supports reciting the pledge in schools. "The time has long past to be having this debate in America. Six-thousand people died in New York City. How many more must die before we come to our senses? That there are people who do not share our values, that there are people in this world who mean to do us harm. It seems to me if we start with these children, and express to them why it is that we believe in the principles that that flag represents, then, we will have done something for their education," he said."

For dissenter Mary Morse, education about patriotism can take many forms. She said children, especially kindergarten through 6th grade, don't understand what they're saying when they recite the pledge.

"Rather than spending time reciting the pledge every day, do some civics education, bring in the American Legion members, talk about the American Constitution. Develop a sense within these children the history of conflict the history of freedom. Don't just have them say a rote thing that they don't understand," More said.

In the end, the board didn't vote up or down on the measure, but instead sent it to committee. Members of the public will have another opportunity to comment in a month or two, after the committee has studied the motion, and the schools have a chance to weigh in.

But there's a possibility the question could be decided by the Legislature. Republican Rep. George Cassell introduced a bill last session that would require students to recite the pledge once a week. It passed the House but didn't make it into the K-12 funding bill.

St. Paul School Board Chair Becky Montgomery says she expects the Legislature will take up the bill again in the upcoming session.