ACLU of Colorado Challenges Law Forcing Public School Teachers and Students to Recite the Pledge of Allegiance

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
August 12, 2003 12:00 am

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ACLU of Colorado
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DENVER — The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado today filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the constitutionality of a new law that requires teachers and students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day in all Colorado public schools.

“”Public expressions of belief in the ideals of liberty and justice should be voluntary, not coerced,”” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. “”By forcing individuals to pledge allegiance, the Colorado law violates the fundamental freedoms that the American flag is meant to represent.””

The ACLU is representing students and teachers at Colorado schools throughout the state, including Keaty Gross, who is entering the 12th grade this fall in the International Baccalaureate Program at George Washington High School in Denver County.

“”I am a patriotic person, but I believe that part of our freedom in the United States is to express our support of our country in different ways,”” she said. “”There should not be only one way to express your patriotism.””

Alan Chen, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver College of Law who is serving as the lead volunteer attorney on the case, added: “”We filed this lawsuit on behalf of teachers and students who believe that expressions of belief should come from the heart, not from government mandate. Just as the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to speak out, it also protects their right to refrain from speaking. In other words, the government cannot compel people to speak against their will.

The law exempts individuals who object to the pledge on religious grounds, but that provision does not apply to the ACLU’s clients, Chen explained. “”Our clients rely on objections of conscience that are separate from religious concerns. By requiring that they recite the pledge despite their objections, the Colorado law violates our clients’ free speech rights.””

The Colorado law also provides that students who are not eligible for a religious exemption may be excused from reciting the Pledge if their parents object in writing on any grounds and file the objection with the school’s principal.

“”Three of our clients are students who feel strongly that they have a First Amendment right to refrain from participating whether their parents write a note or not,”” Silverstein said. “”Colorado cannot make the exercise of First Amendment rights contingent on getting a note from Mom or Dad.””

The ACLU lawsuit relies on a landmark United States Supreme Court decision handed down 60 years ago on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were expelled from school because they would not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In that case, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, the Court held that no government official had the power to compel individuals to pledge their allegiance, whether they objected on religious grounds or for other reasons of conscience.

Defendants in the lawsuit are Governor Bill Owens, Colorado Commissioner of Education William Maloney, and four school districts: Jefferson County, Denver Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools, and the Cherry Creek School District. The plaintiffs include students who attend school in Denver Public Schools and Cherry Creek, as well as teachers in each of the four school districts.

In addition to Silverstein and Chen, the ACLU legal team includes David Lane of Lane and Killmer. Mark Hughes of Two Rivers Institute in Denver is also serving as co-counsel on the case.

The complaint in the case is online at /node/35367

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