Depending on what state you live in, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school while standing in front of an American flag might not be a core memory for you. But rest assured it is a common experience–47 states require it after all. It’s deeply weird when you think about it from an outside perspective. A room of 30 to 40 kids with their hands over their hearts monotonously reciting the same thing every day in front of a flag probably fits right at home in a bad YA dystopia novel. Anyway, what’s up with the Pledge of Allegiance? Do you have to recite it? For those who know your First Amendment rights, you might be wondering why the pledge has the words “under God” in it, since freedom to practice any religion includes freedom from religion. We’ll answer that too.
States Where You Don’t Have to Recite the Pledge of Allegiance
You might be wondering why Nebraska has a star by it. That’s because Nebraska doesn’t have a state statute requiring the pledge, but its school board decided the pledge would be required in 2012.
Every other state requires the pledge be recited, though many allow students to be exempt from recitation. Kansas and California let school districts decide. Delaware had a bill with clear exemptions outlined, but it got tabled. Illinois, New Mexico, Georgia, and Massachusetts have no outlined exemptions either.
In Massachusetts, if a school teacher or principal fails to get a school to recite the pledge for five days in a row can get fined up to five dollars per five day period.
Do You Have to Recite It?
The short answer is no, you do not ever have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. That being said, there can be a lot of hoops to the process. Sometimes they’re very minor, like “be quiet while everyone else is reciting the pledge.” Washington, Oregon, Tennessee, and Virginia have such laws. In states like Texas, Florida, Utah, or Pennsylvania there are some more hoops. Students need to provide the school with written notice. Which for many just amounts to more work than it’s worth. Functionally it’s just required.
Anyway, despite the hoops, forced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance is a violation of the First Amendment. You can thank West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette for that. In 1943 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance was protected under one’s First Amendment rights. Which might raise eyebrows because a Florida sixth grader was arrested for refusing to recite the pledge in 2019.
If you’re wondering what got West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette before the SCOTUS, you can thank Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their religious beliefs forbid them from pledging to symbols, including but not limited to political ones. Citing the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court argued that “freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much.” In the majority opinion by Justice Robert H. Jackson, forcing students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance was ruled a “compulsory unification of opinion.”
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Why Do We Recite It Anyway?
The very first iteration of the Pledge of Allegiance was penned in 1885 during the Civil War by Captain George Thatcher Balch. He was an officer in the Union Army. The pledge would see revisions in 1892, 1923, 1923, and 1954.
Democracies requiring kids to swear fealty to their country isn’t a very common thing, which is why the Pledge of Allegiance certainly seems odd to those raised outside of the US. The pledge itself came about because political loyalties throughout the US were constantly under suspicion–it’s something that comes about with a civil war. Primarily, though, the pledge was about immigration. Many Americans in the 1880s were anxious about the dramatic increase in immigration to the states from the 1870s to the 1910s. Francis Bellamy wrote the 1892 version of the Pledge of Allegiance, and made a pretty transparent argument for it. He argued that using the pledge in public schools was necessary for engendering loyalty to the USA.
It’s probably telling that congresspeople in the House of Representatives didn’t start reciting the pledge until 1988. The Senate didn’t start until 1999.
The “Under God” Part
So the Pledge of Allegiance exists because of American paranoia and persists to engender patriotism. This doesn’t have anything to do with any kind of god, and the pledge would remain without reference to a god until 1954. On June 14th, 1954 (that’s right, Flag Day), the “one Nation under God” part was added to the pledge.
Now the 50s might ring a few bells, particularly bells that sound like the Cold War. Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from the Soviets in any way possible, and that included the state atheism practiced by the USSR. In order to do that, Americans raised a popular movement to slap “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance.
See if you still remember all the words to the pledge here.