- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2001

RICHMOND The Virginia Senate yesterday approved and sent to the House a bill that would make reciting the Pledge of Allegiance a daily requirement for public-school students.

The bill, as written and interpreted by the state Attorney General's Office, would allow students who object to the pledge on philosophical or religious reasons to remain seated.

But those students would have to explain their objections to school officials. That was to get at the problem of students who refuse to say the pledge, but don't have a serious objection, backers said.

The bill, if it survives inspection in the House Education Committee, has a good shot at passing the House, where even opponents acknowledge that a "no" vote could mean trouble in an election year.

The Senate approved the bill 27-9 after emotional testimony on behalf of the measure from a variety of supporters, including immigrants, veterans and those whose family members had served in the armed forces.

"I think we have to stand for this bill. If we don't, we stand for nothing. And any country whose citizens stand for nothing lacks character," said Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican and the bill's sponsor.

He said he conceived of the bill after seeing students not standing during the pledge. He took an informal survey and many of the students said they didn't feel like standing. That, he said, was grating to a former Marine like himself.

"There isn't anything in here that says you're going to be lined up and shot, like in some countries. What this says is that if you don't agree with it, you still have the right to go to another school, it just wouldn't be a public school in the state of Virginia," Mr. Barry said.

He was joined in supporting the bill by Sen. Nick Rerras, Norfolk Republican, whose parents immigrated before he was born. Mr. Rerras said his father constantly told him how lucky he was to be born in America and how saying the pledge is a just thanks for what the country offers.

But the American Civil Liberties Union said requiring students to explain their objections might be unconstitutional. Opponents in the Senate echoed that and said it's impossible to mandate patriotism.

"Insecure governments usually impose symbols of patriotism on their youth. Totalitarian governments always impose symbols of patriotism on their youth. My great fear is we're moving in that direction," said Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat.

Sen. L. Louise Lucas, Portsmouth Democrat, said she remembered growing up having to use the "colored only" public restroom and said she learned to be patriotic anyway. Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, described an Indian massacre in Colorado in 1864 and said he could understand if an American Indian didn't feel comfortable saying the pledge.

"The fact that you're going to pass a law that someone who might have some objections would have to give the government an explanation of their philosophy or their religion to me, it goes too far," Mr. Houck said.

Yet another Fairfax Democrat, Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, recalled seeing her father, a veteran, refusing to say the pledge one time and asking him why. He told her that the rest of the people were just going through the motions, and he couldn't abide by that.

"I think that my dad taught me the value of when you say the pledge, to mean it. Not to be forced to say it, not to be held to some standard that somebody wants to put down your throat. But when you sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," or when you say the Pledge of Allegiance, my dad said to mean it, or don't bother," she said.

The bill appears to have enough support to pass in the House.

Even Mr. Houck, who voted against the bill, acknowledged the potential political downside to opposing the pledge in an election year.

Schools have been a key focus in the Virginia culture war, with both sides trying to make statements through public school and discipline policies.

Last year, Mr. Barry was successful in his effort to institute a mandatory minute of silence for prayer or reflection in every public school. That measure was upheld by a federal court in Alexandria, but is being appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Monday, the House passed and sent to the Senate a bill to display "In God We Trust," the national motto, prominently in every public school in the state.

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