- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

RICHMOND The sponsor of a bill that would require students to say the Pledge of Allegiance asked that it be pulled off the docket yesterday after a House panel removed mandatory suspension for those who refused.

Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican, wants to require all public school students to stand and say the pledge unless they have a religious or philosophical objection to it. His goal, he said, was to get at students who don't say the pledge, not because they have a specific objection to it, but because they "just don't feel like it."

But the House Education Committee unanimously voted to remove the suspension mandate, with members arguing it should be left up to local school systems to deal with disruptive students.

That was unacceptable to Mr. Barry, who said it left the bill with no teeth. After the committee voted to remove the provision, Mr. Barry angrily told members to strike his bill, and he abruptly left the meeting room without waiting to see what they did.

"We have a bunch of pinkos on that committee that nibbled away on the bill to the point that it doesn't have any meaning," Mr. Barry told reporters outside.

But the bill remains alive because Education Committee members, taken aback by the request and hoping Mr. Barry will reconsider, left it in committee rather than strike it.

The pledge bill has become a hot-button issue this year even more so than Mr. Barry's bill in last year's session to require public school students to observe a minute of silence.

Mr. Barry said he's received threats which police are investigating because he filed the bill.

He invited reporters to look at the folders full of e-mails, pro and con, on the issue. The supportive e-mails were generally from those who said the pledge instilled a sense of patriotism, but those who wrote opposing the bill often invoked Hitler.

"Are you out of your mind?" wrote one parent, while other e-mailers called Mr. Barry expletives.

Inside the committee, tempers still were running hot after Mr. Barry left, with two delegates accusing each other of empty rhetoric.

Mr. Barry said he may feel differently about his decision to strike his bill by the time the committee meets again tomorrow, but he seemed to be leaning against another try.

When he first introduced the bill, it only exempted students with a religious objection. All other students would be required to stand, salute the flag and say the pledge. Those who refused would be suspended.

Before the bill came to the Senate, Attorney General Mark L. Earley rewrote it to also exempt students who had philosophical objections, and Mr. Barry reluctantly accepted that change. The bill passed a Senate committee and then the full Senate, 27-9.

But House Education Committee members balked at the suspension clause, arguing it was a harsh penalty better left up to localities.

"Right now, we don't suspend kids for cheating, automatically for fighting. The only things we do right now are for guns and drugs criminal activity. I suggest we leave it to local discretion as to how to deal with this," said Delegate Thomas M. Jackson Jr., Carroll Democrat.

Mr. Barry feared local school boards would cave in to pressure and enact weak disciplinary measures, something that wouldn't happen if the legislature took a stand and removed that burden from them, he said.

Mr. Barry asked that the bill be struck because he didn't want committee members to get credit for passing a watered-down version they could still trumpet to their constituents.

"When they got it neutered, they could take a patriotic stand and say, 'Well, I voted for the Pledge of Allegiance,' " he said.

When members request that a bill be stricken, it's a courtesy to respect that and vote to strike it. Otherwise, an amended bill would be passed under the patron's name.

The committee seemed to be leaning toward passing the bill with the amendments, but members yesterday decided to wait to see if Mr. Barry changes his mind before tomorrow.

There's precedent for an end-run around the Education Committee. Last year, it passed a gutted version of Mr. Barry's minute-of-silence bill, but the bill was adjusted back when it got onto the full House floor and the adjusted version eventually became law.

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