- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 20, 2001

Patriotism complete with references to God is fashionable again in American schools, gaining support in recent days from parents, educators, veterans groups and Congress.

The New York City Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution requiring that all public schools lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each school day and at assemblies and special events.

The board's action re-established a policy that's been all but dead in New York schools for three decades.

"Where New York is going, I believe, is indicative of where the rest of the nation is going," Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is helping to spearhead the trend, said yesterday in a telephone interview.

A school district in a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., this week changed its policy to require that high schools and middle schools give students the opportunity to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Previously, only elementary schools there had to offer the pledge.

The decision by the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district means a local American Legion post will resume providing up to $100,000 in support for the school system. The post had withheld the money because the district had not required the pledge to be recited in secondary schools.

The action in Minnesota came one day after the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted 200 to 1 to require the state's students to recite the pledge or sing the national anthem in school each day and to mandate the display of the American flag in every classroom.

The school board in Madison, Wis., voted 6-1 Tuesday to restore the Pledge of Allegiance. The week before, the board had banned both reciting the pledge and singing the national anthem, arguing the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are too militaristic and the pledge's "one nation, under God" line was a religious intrusion on the separation of church and state. After a local and national furor, the board reconsidered.

The policy changes in the Minnesota, New York and Wisconsin schools do not compel students to recite the pledge. But under the Pennsylvania bill, students would need written permission from parents to be exempt from saying the pledge or singing the national anthem.

Denying someone the right to pledge allegiance to the nation and its flag would be unconstitutional under a 1943 Supreme Court ruling.

"Under current law, it is entirely permissible for a public school or other government body to display a 'God Bless America' sign or to institute voluntary recital of the Pledge of Allegiance by its students," Mr. Sekulow said.

It is a timely issue, as many Americans look for ways to show patriotism and national unity in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The ACLJ, a public-interest law firm, is contacting school systems throughout the nation to let them know God can be mentioned in those contexts.

At a school in Rocklin, Calif., the words "God Bless America" remain on a marquee outside Breen Elementary School, despite advice from the American Civil Liberties Union that the words should be removed.

"Multiple parents requested that those words be placed on the marquee in light of the September 11th terrorist tragedy, since everyone was feeling both patriotic and mournful," Chris White, a secretary at the school, said in a telephone interview.

But in a letter sent to the school's principal Oct. 3, the ACLU said: "On behalf of a parent whose child attends the school and is greatly troubled by the religious sign, we sent a letter stating that a religious message on a public elementary school violates the California and United States constitutions."

Officials of the Rocklin Unified School District supported the right of "God Bless America" to remain, after their lawyers concluded the words violated neither constitution.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 404-0 on Tuesday to adopt a nonbinding resolution encouraging public schools to display the words "God Bless America" as an expression of national support.

The ACLU of Northern California released a statement that day saying it "does not intend to file a lawsuit" in the Breen Elementary case.

The civil liberties advocacy group said it was concerned that the family opposed to the display had been identified by the school board. "We believe it would only exacerbate the family's distress" by bringing litigation, the group said.

"The message 'God Bless America' is constitutionally protected speech and does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," Mr. Sekulow said.

In fact, he said, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in an opnion she wrote described the three words as a "patriotic phrase" that is constitutional. He also pointed to a 10-year-old ruling by a California state court that found the term did not violate the state constitution.

The ACLJ pledged to defend any school districts that the ACLU decides to challenge for displaying "God Bless America."

Not all patriotic endeavors are advanced by education policy, though. At San Diego State University, a student was interrogated by campus police after criticizing four Saudi students for celebrating the terrorist strikes. He then received a stern warning from the Center for Student Rights.

The Saudis filed a complaint with campus police against Zewdalem Kebede, a native Ethiopian and naturalized U.S. citizen, charging him with "verbal harassment." After an investigation, Mr. Kebede received a letter threatening him with "severe disciplinary sanctions" if he is accused again of confronting others on the campus in an "aggressive or abusive manner."

The incident, first reported in the university's student newspaper, the Daily Aztec, was picked up by the Wall Street Journal online.

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