Following ACLU Action, Virginia Senate Committee Kills Bill Requiring Schools to Notify Parents When Students Refuse to Recite Pledge

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
February 17, 2005 12:00 am

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RICHMOND, VA–On a 7-7 vote, the Virginia Senate Education and Health Committee today blocked a bill intended to require schools to notify parents when their children refused to recite or stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The vote followed a warning by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia that it was prepared to mount a legal challenge if the bill passed.

“There is little doubt that the purpose of this bill was to punish students who exercise their free speech right not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Schools are certainly free to open their day with the Pledge of Allegiance. But lawmakers should remember that the right not speak against your own beliefs is one of those constitutional rights we pledge to protect.”

The bill, HB 1912, passed the House of Delegates on a 93-4 vote. Had it passed the Senate, HB 1912 would have required the State Board of Education to issue guidelines to schools on notifying parents when their children decline to recite or stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Although the bill did not compel the Board of Education to mandate parental notification, the bill’s patron, Delegate Mark L. Cole, had made it clear that his reason for introducing the bill was to require schools to inform parents when their children refuse to participate in recitations of the Pledge.

Cole’s bill came in the wake of a controversy that developed in Spotsylvania County last fall after a student was threatened with punishment for refusing to stand for or recite the Pledge. That student, with help from the ACLU, cited a recent Virginia law explicitly giving him the right to refuse to participate in recitations of the Pledge.

In its memo to the Senate Education and Health Committee, the ACLU noted that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals last year struck down a Pennsylvania parental notification law, finding that it was intended to “chill speech by providing a disincentive to opting out” of Pledge recitations.

A copy of the ACLU’s memo follows:

TO: Senate Committee on Education and Health
FROM: Kent Willis, Executive Director, and Aimee Perron, Legislative Director
DATE: February 16, 2005

RE: HB 1912– Pledge of Allegiance Guidelines Concerning Notification of Parents When Their Children Refuse to Participate (Cole)

HB 1912 requires the State Board of Education to issue guidelines for public schools regarding notification of parents when their children decline to recite or stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Although HB 1912 does not require the Board of Education to mandate parental notification, the bill’s patron has made it clear in public statements that his reason for introducing the bill is to compel schools to inform parents when their children refuse to participate in recitations of the Pledge.

HB 1912 Could Result in Violations of Students’ Free Speech Rights

Schools that notify parents whose children refuse to recite or stand for Pledge will be violating the free speech rights of these students by treating them differently on account of the views they hold.

Federal Appeals Court Struck Down Pennsylvania Pledge Notification Law in 2004

In 2002, Pennsylvania legislators passed a law that required schools to notify parents when their children refused to recite the Pledge. Last August in Circle Schools v. Pappert, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling striking down the Pennsylvania law as unconstitutional on it face. The Court found that the law, despite statements to the contrary from legislators, was intended to “chill speech by providing a disincentive to opting out” of Pledge recitations.

The ACLU of Virginia sees no difference between the Pennsylvania law and the implementation of guidelines or policies in Virginia that result in parental notification.

ACLU is Prepared to Challenge Guidelines That Mandate or Allow Parental Notification

If HB 1912 becomes law and the Board of Education compels schools to notify parents when their children refuse to participate in recitations of the Pledge, the ACLU of Virginia is prepared to represent in court students who are chilled from exercising their First Amendment rights as a result of the policy. If the Board of Education permits schools to notify parents, the ACLU of Virginia will offer legal representation to students attending schools that adopt those policies.

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