MICHELE NORRIS, host: People in Brookline, Massachusetts, are waving the flag both for and against the Pledge of Allegiance. Courts have ruled that public schools cannot compel students to recite the pledge. So in Brookline, as elsewhere, it's voluntary.
But NPR's Tovia Smith introduces us to one man who insists there's still pressure on students to conform, and he wants the pledge out of the classroom.
TOVIA SMITH: Brookline parent Martin Rosenthal says he is very patriotic. He proudly put his hand on his heart and pledged allegiance to the flag at a recent community event. But he says the pledge has no place in the classroom.
MARTIN ROSENTHAL: You're asking kids in school to take a loyalty oath in front of their classmates. And I just don't think its right.
SMITH: Rosenthal says the pledge has no educational value and even flies in the face of the kind of critical thinking schools should be teaching. But he says, he's most bothered by the peer pressure students may feel to recite it.
ROSENTHAL: It's like if you don't agree with group, we're going to ostracize you. If you don't swear allegiance you're considered disloyal, and that's what I'm getting.
SMITH: Since he filed his proposal, Rosenthal says he's been assaulted by calls and e-mails that prove his point.
ROSENTHAL: I'm going to read them but I don't know if I can read them on the air.
Go (bleep) yourself, you socialist pig. You liberal (bleep) are ruining this country.
I mean, I have a thick skin. But I don't think it's right to put six, seven year olds in that situation. And our school committee doesn't get it.
REBECCA STONE: We don't have a problem.
SMITH: School committee chair Rebecca Stone says no students have ever complained they were bullied for not pledging. And schools are very careful to make sure the pledge does not feel coercive.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: At this time, I invite you to join me in the Pledge of Allegiance.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I pledge allegiance to the flag...
SMITH: At Brookline's Runkle School, as in most, the pledge is led once a week, over the intercom.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...with liberty, and justice for all.
STONE: Nobody should be asked to stand. Nobody should be asked to salute, or to place their hands over their hearts. They are not told how to respond. They are given an opportunity to hear and recite the pledge if they so choose.
SMITH: After dismissal, outside another Brookline school, 8th grader Noam Fink agrees there is no pressure to pledge. In fact
NOAM FINK: I did it once. And I was one of, like, three people standing up and it was awkward, because everyone was staring at you.
SMITH: So it was more uncomfortable to say it than to not say it.
SMITH: Pledging seems to be more common in the younger grades. Though as 4th grader Milena Kitterman puts: It's up to you.
MILENA KITTERMAN: If you want to do it, it's cool to do it. But if you don't want to, you just sit in your seat and wait till its over and its no big deal.
SMITH: Nobody looks at you funny?
KATE STAFF: No.
SMITH: She and classmate Kate Staff say they like pledging.
KITTERMAN: It just feels very special to do it.
STAFF: I feel like I'm really actually an American.
SMITH: School committee chair Stone says many in Brookline want more of the pledge, not less.
STONE: There is no question that this is a cherished civic tradition and cherished civic traditions count for something.
SMITH: Indeed the flap over the flag ricocheted all the way up to the candidates for president. Speaking on Fox News, Newt Gingrich was indignant.
NEWT GINGRICH: I would hope that any taxpaying school will say the Pledge of Allegiance. And frankly, I'd wonder whether taxpayers ought to subsidize it if it's not going to teach people how to be patriotic and how to be pro-American.
SMITH: In Brookline, equally enraged residents are now hanging flags outside their homes in support of the pledge. Resident Sandra Maloney says people should stop whining about peer pressure.
SANDRA MALONEY: Grow up. Part of growing up is having pressure put upon you so that you are able cope with life as you get older. And we are trying to teach our children to stand up for themselves. This is part of your education.
(SOUNDBITE OF A RINGING PHONE)
SMITH: But at home, where his phone has been ringing non stop, Martin Rosenthal says the harassment he's experiencing is more than just teasing on the playground. The public threats even prompted the police chief to get involved.
ROSENTHAL: You know, I'd really appreciate that. It's bad and I have been thinking of calling you because I've been a little worried.
SMITH: For all the vocal opposition, there's been relative quiet from the side of civil libertarians. Even stalwart Harvey Silverglate came down in favor of the pledge in schools, saying it does have educational value. He says letting students wrestle with whether or not to pledge is kind of like liberty 101.
HARVEY SILVERGLATE: Let me tell you something. In an un-free country it's very easy because authorities tell you what you have to do. So in a constitutional democracy, of course, it's hard because you have to make your own mind up. But we should really thank our lucky stars that's what we've got.
SMITH: Silverglate calls the whole debate over the pledge a distraction. But thanks to the First Amendment, he says it's a distraction people have a right to raise.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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