Sunday, June 21, 2009
N.M. May Let Students Skip Pledge
By Heather Clark
The state Public Education Department has proposed an update to its rules that would allow schoolchildren to opt out of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, a morning ritual in public schools around the state.
Department rules state that the Pledge of Allegiance shall be recited each day in school.
The proposed one-sentence amendment to the rule reads: "... any person not wishing to participate in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance shall, without consequences or retaliation, be exempt from reciting it and need not participate."
Public Education Department spokeswoman Beverly Friedman said a sparsely attended, two-hour hearing for public comment on proposed changes to 29 department rules, most of them administrative updates, was held Wednesday. Friedman said no one spoke about the Pledge of Allegiance rule change.
Public Education Secretary Veronica Garcia will make the final decision about the rules change, likely this fall, but Friedman said she hasn't expressed her opinion about whether she will approve the change.
Friedman said policies in New Mexico's public schools already allow kids to opt out of the pledge.
"There really isn't that much of a difference. It's what has been practiced by school districts throughout the state," she said.
Willie Brown, general counsel for the Public Education Department, said he suggested the amendment to the pledge rule to put the department's rules in line with a 1943 Supreme Court ruling that schoolchildren can opt out of reciting the pledge for religious reasons.
"I looked at this rule. When I read that, I knew it was wrong. Because of the First Amendment, you can't make every kid pledge allegiance," Brown said.
The department began reviewing the rules this spring, the first time the department has done so in Brown's 11 years there, he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the department's proposed rule change.
"Clearly a mandatory pledge is unconstitutional," said Kathryn Turnipseed, the ACLU's associate director in New Mexico. "Moving away from that is a positive step."
Turnipseed said the ACLU has received two complaints in the last three years in which individual teachers have forced or attempted to force students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Both incidents occurred in Albuquerque and were addressed by Albuquerque Public Schools after the ACLU brought the matter to the district's attention, Turnipseed wrote.
The Albuquerque district has a policy on reciting the pledge that states no student may be coerced into participating in the pledge.
The district policy, posted on its Web site, says students are not required to stand or to leave the room during the pledge and they can't be subjected to prejudicial treatment for exercising their right to abstain from reciting the pledge.
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