A controversial state statute amendment requiring the Pledge of Allegiance be recited at Madison schools is inflaming a long-standing debate in the United States over the separation of church and state.
Wisconsin statute 118.06(2) previously required students in grades one through eight to recite the Pledge of Allegiance one day per week. A recent amendment to the state budget now requires schools to offer either the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem daily.
In the Madison area, each school decides whether to lead the pledge or sing the national anthem, said Madison Metropolitan Superintendent Art Rainwater.
“The law presents the option to give the anthem or the pledge,” Rainwater said. “And as a public school district, we need to give schools that option to decide what’s best for their school.”
But what some people consider patriotism, others see as a religious proclamation.
Freedom From Religion Foundation President Anne Nicol Gaylor argues the Pledge of Allegiance is a religious pledge, and has been ever since the phrase “under God” was added in 1954.
Gaylor said the Freedom From Religion Foundation has received about a dozen phone calls from parents and teachers alike who are angry the Pledge is being recited in public schools.
“We are especially concerned that a captive audience of schoolchildren could be exposed every day to a religious pledge,” Gaylor said.
Gaylor has proposed Madison-area schools show their patriotism by singing the Star Spangled Banner instead.
“Public schools should pursue the most secular, and the least coercive alternative,” Gaylor said. “There are good voices in all of our schools — let them be heard. Start the day with a song.”
According to Rainwater, every child can opt out of the morning functions.
Gaylord said this is not enough.
“Our job is to see that they have the right to do it or not to do it without harassment,” Gaylor said. “People should realize that you build walls between children when you bring religion into the classroom, and by doing it every day only heightens those walls.”
Rainwater said the school district was not making a religious decision, only that it was “implementing state law.”
He said all staff members have been informed of the new policy, and letters were sent home to parents and guardians explaining the new procedure.
“We have received both [complaints and support],” he said.
With no consensus among the political or education community locally, statewide or nationally, the question of whether the Pledge of Allegiance is a religious declaration or simply a patriotic statement is not going to go away any time soon.