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News / Northwest

Schools in Washington are required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily. A new bill would make sure students actually understand what it means

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 5, 2024, 6:02am

SPOKANE — Across the nation, school children share the ritual of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning before class as they have done for decades, likely as long as anyone alive today can remember.

Although it’s been a practice for generations, a group of middle-schoolers in Eatonville, Washington, realized that while they’re expected to say the words, they don’t know the intention or the history of the saying that kicks off their school day.

“The other day, my friend kept repeating the word ‘ravioli’ instead of the actual pledge words. I was annoyed,” said Eatonville seventh-grader Elijah Whatley. “We have concluded that the reason for this behavior is barely any children understand the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

A bill heard in the Legislature on Thursday seeks to change that by requiring districts to teach the meaning and history once at each school level by the 2025-26 school year.

The bill was brought forth by the class at Eatonville Middle School, who argued if they’re expected to say these words daily, they should at least know why.

“I have always been concerned about what I see in the classroom when we say this ritual called the pledge of allegiance,” said Alex Hansen, global perspectives teacher whose class inspired the bill.

After Hansen’s class finished a project diving into the meaning of each word, they found the practice became more than a routine they recited ambivalently every day in monotone voices.

Spokane-area students don’t know the history either, and many of them assign their own prescriptions to the pledge.

Eric Agius, a senior at Mt. Spokane High School, said he always stands, removes his hat and recites the pledge, considering his dad served in the military and the freedom he associates with the stars and stripes. While feeling a sense of veneration for the flag and the pledge, Agius admits he doesn’t know the history or the specified purpose of reciting it.

“I wish I did know,” Agius said. “It’s probably something as an American I should know, but I don’t.”

Rather, he forms his own intention behind it, recalling John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” imploring Americans to consider benefiting the collective nation.

“Really, the pledge of allegiance is what you can do for your country,” Agius said. “Through that, hopefully you find yourself providing a public service to the United States.”

Reciting the pledge feels rhythmic and routine for Ella Terzulli, senior at Lakeland High School in Rathdrum. She’s said it every day since kindergarten without knowing its history.

“It just comes out of my mouth no matter what I’m thinking about,” Terzulli said.

The same is true for Lakeland junior Aly Caywood, who associates it with patriotism.

“I think it would be more meaningful if we knew why we say it,” Caywood said.

Olive Pete, Lewis and Clark junior, is among the around 50% of students who opt to respectfully sit during the pledge at her school. An Indigenous student, Pete feels the injustices her community has faced in the United States, from removal from their ancestral land generations ago to the modern crisis of Indigenous women facing violence or going missing at glaringly high rates.

“The big violence and refusal to be investigating these missing and murdered Indigenous women, it’s brought a lot more things to light,” Pete said. “It’s hard for people to stand up in the morning and give their civic duty or whatever the Pledge of Allegiance should be called, because it’s just untrue.”

Pete doesn’t know the history of the words and would support schools teaching it. That way, she said students can make informed decisions to recite it or not.

“For students from their youngest and earliest form of education being taught to recite it without being taught what they’re saying, I don’t think that’s good,” Pete said.

The bill does not outline a curriculum to be used in the history education, other than directing the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to provide resources for educators.

A brief history of the flag salute

The pledge was originally composed in 1892 by Baptist minister and socialist Francis Bellamy, commissioned to author it by a congregant and Youth’s Companion magazine publisher who wanted a unifying rallying cry for the children of America to be read on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to North America.

Bellamy was inspired partly by the Civil War that erupted just 30 years prior, according to the Smithsonian, and wanted to center the ritual around loyalty. Hence, school children promise their eternal devotion to the United States, as reflected in the title and the first words of the Pledge of Allegiance.

It wasn’t universally observed until World War I, when interest was revived to encourage patriotism, according to Spokane Daily Chronicle archives.

The version kids know today looks a little different from the one Bellamy penned. Originally, students saluted “my flag,” and wording was later changed to “the flag” in a 1923 National Flag Conference, so it would be clear to children not born in the United States exactly to which flag they were saluting, according to archives.

In 1942, Congress officially adopted the pledge into flag code. A year later, the Supreme Court affirmed students’ right to abstain from reciting the pledge in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette, in which Jehovah’s Witnesses said it violated their religious practices. Thousands across the country were expelled for abstaining, including eight in Worley, according to Spokesman-Review archives.

The Idaho students’ expulsion was justified by wartime emphasis on nationalism. “Where national unity is endangered, religious freedom shall not prevail,” said prosecutor William Hawkins, who upheld the students’ expulsion in an appeal.

The flag salute remained the topic of conversation that year, this time surrounding the proper stance to salute the flag. Until 1943, children stood and extended their right hand up and outwards, toward the stars and stripes with palms up. Some drew comparisons to the Nazi salute, according to Spokesman-Review archives, a particularly delicate comparison as World War II waged.

Then-superintendent Orville C. Pratt ridiculed the comparison, telling The Spokesman-Review in April 1942 that “all that is accomplished by such quibbling is a certain amount of confusion.”

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He also advocated that the meaning ought to be taught to pupils, in order to distinguish Americans from the Nazis, whose salute indicates they would “die for Hitler, for to the Nazi Hitler is Germany.”

“In our country, we do not ask that our faith be blindly held. We want an intelligent patriotism. Ours is a faith that comes from understanding,” he said in February 1942.

Schools must have had a change of heart; the next year, students changed their pose.

“The old ‘fascist type’ arm’s length salute to the flag is ‘out,’ and children of the city will place their hand over their heart in the future as they stand and pledge allegiance,” archives from Feb. 6, 1943, read.

In 1954, the salute was altered again, this time by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower adding the contentious phrase “under God” to the script. During the red scare, many American politicians sought to distinguish themselves from “Godless” communists by emphasizing piety in the flag salute.

The statement was to strengthen “spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource,” Eisenhower said, according to reporting in The Spokesman-Review from two days after this addition.

In 1981, it became Washington law that the salute be held each day at the beginning of class. Students who didn’t wish to recite it should remain silent and need not stand, The Spokesman-Review reported at the time. In 2024, the Legislature is taking another crack at the pledge, this time surrounding education. A committee vote is scheduled for the bill on Wednesday.

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