Court bars enforcement of patriotism law at schools

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- A federal court on Tuesday barred education officials from enforcing a state law that requires public and private school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem each morning.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelly agreed with the arguments of several plaintiffs, including a private school in Harrisburg, that the law violates students' right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment.

"I agree that unconstitutionally interferes with the school plaintiff's ability to express their values and forces them to espouse the commonwealth's views," Kelly wrote in issuing a permanent injunction.

The law also requires the American flag to be displayed in every classroom when school is in session.

Under the law, students can decline to recite the pledge and salute the flag on the basis of religious conviction or personal belief, but school officials must notify students' parents.

The Pennsylvania chapter of American Civil Liberties Union has said it believes the parental notification requirement would discourage students from exercising their right not to participate.

"The pledge is something that should be voluntary. If you have to compel students to recite it, it's so contrary to what our country is all about," said Larry Frankel, the ACLU's legislative director.

The law was signed in December by then-Gov. Mark S. Schweiker. Its sponsor, Rep. C. Allan Egolf, has said he introduced the measure after talking to veterans who told him that many schools no longer routinely recite the pledge.

"We didn't think that they would come to that conclusion because we did pretty good research on previous challenges in other states, and it was upheld because they allowed students to opt out," Egolf said.

Officials with the state Education Department, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, were not immediately available for comment.

The federal suit was filed in February by a high school sophomore in suburban Philadelphia; The Circle School, a private school in Harrisburg; and a teacher at the school.

Jim Rietmulder, a Circle School founder and staff member, applauded the ruling. The state-licensed private school in suburban Harrisburg allows students to set policy and help run the school under a democratic system of government.

"For our students, it seems like a vindication of their view that patriotism comes in many forms," he said.