By Grant Schulte
A new rule that requires Nebraska public schools to set aside time for the Pledge of Allegiance is drawing complaints from some teachers who are worried that schools may pressure them to recite it against their will, a civil liberties group said Monday.
An attorney for the ACLU Nebraska Foundation said the group has received four pledge-related complaints from teachers — a larger number than usual — since the State Board of Education unanimously approved the policy on Aug. 10. Schools must comply to keep their state accreditation and funding, but students and teachers can still choose not to participate.
ACLU Nebraska legal director Amy Miller sent a letter Monday to superintendents throughout the state, asking them to remind schools that no student or teacher can be forced to say the pledge.
In meetings before their vote, board members repeatedly stressed that the policy gives students and teachers the opportunity to opt out. But Miller said she's concerned the new rule will still lead some administrators to mistakenly believe that reciting the pledge is mandatory, or embolden them to require it. She said her group normally receives about one complaint per year related to the pledge, most often from students.
"To have four in one month indicates to us that there's a real fear on the parts of teachers who are trying to do their job, and don't want to have to sacrifice their deeply held religious beliefs to keep their employment," she said.
Miller said one of the teachers works in Lincoln, another is from Omaha, and two others teach in smaller districts in rural Nebraska. None wanted to be identified out of fear that they would face harassment, she said.
One teacher objected to a pledge because of a Bible passage, Matthew 5:33-37, which the teacher interpreted as forbidding oaths such as the Pledge of Allegiance, Miller said. Another cited the belief that pledging to the flag was akin to worshipping a false idol, which is not allowed in Christian and Jewish faiths. Another teacher raised free-speech concerns, Miller said.
The proposal requires the pledge in all classrooms, kindergarten through 12th grade, in the presence of an American flag. Students who object can stand or sit silently while the pledge is recited, but have to respect the rights of others who participate.
School officials modeled the proposal after a 2002 New Hampshire law and a bill introduced in the Nebraska Legislature. A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court upheld the New Hampshire law in 2010. The judges ruled that the voluntary, teacher-led recitation did not constitute state-sponsored religion.
Miller said Monday she had already heard responses from superintendents thanking her for the letter, and she expressed confidence that most school districts would follow the policy without major problems.