Ask any person over the age of 45, and they’ll tell you that part of the morning ritual at school was to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag. Students did it without thinking; it was a necessary part of getting on with the day, and rarely did anyone think about what they were saying. They just did it.
Flash forward four decades, and the pledge is awash in controversy. Court battles, protests and politicians have all played a role in what has happened, and the controversy is far from over.
Some point to the words “under God” as being the cause of the fight between conservatives and civil libertarians; those words were inserted into the pledge in 1954. But a court case brought on by a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1940 started the debate. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that students could be forced to recite the flag. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had argued that they should pledge allegiance to nothing but Jehovah.
Three years later, the Court reversed its decision. But schools continued to have their students recite the pledge, even after Congress added the words “under God” to the pledge under the urging of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. And the controversy continued.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that reciting the pledge was not a religious exercise, likening it to a recitation of the Gettysburg Address.
Politics entered the fray in 1988 when Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush, the Republican nominee for President, criticized Democrat Michael Dukakis for vetoing a bill that would require the Pledge of Allegiance in all Massachusetts schools. Republicans in the U.S. House crafted a resolution mandating the pledge before each session of Congress but was criticized by Speaker Jim Wright, who bemoaned the insertion of politics into such an issue. The Senate followed suit in 1999.
In 1992, the Illinois Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “schools may lead the Pledge of Allegiance daily, so long as pupils are free not to participate.” This created a new problem: Would students be chastised for not participating in the pledge?
The tide turned in 2002. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the pledge was an “impermissable government endorsement of religion.” President George W. Bush, the House and the Senate all strongly objected, with both houses passing resolutions criticizing the decision. The Supreme Court heard the case in 2004 and overturned the Ninth Circuit’s decision solely on procedural grounds, ruling that the plaintiff had no legal standing to sue. It was not the knockout win conservatives hoped for.
The dispute has continued into the 2010s, with no real winner or loser. It may still be decades before we learn whether the pledge is a solemn vow to the country or the government attempting to establish religion.