A school district in the Florida panhandle took a new law that requires schools to inform parents of their children’s right not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance seriously. Too seriously, say parents, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.
“We want it to be abundantly clear that while yes, there is a law stating you need to notify parents [that their children have a right to opt out of saying the pledge], there is no requirement to create any type of form or waiver,” the paper quoted Florida Department of Education communications director Meghan Collins as saying.
At issue was a waiver form printed and distributed by Leon County Schools to an estimated 400 parents. Those parents were instructed to return the waiver if they wanted their son or daughter to opt out of the pledge. The law, which is new for this school year, simply requires schools to inform parents of their opt-out rights.
Following an immediate rejection of the waiver form by parents and on social media, Leon County Schools Superintendent Jackie Pons scrapped the waiver form, changed the language in the student handbook to the exact language in the new statute, and said, “When they pass a statute that requires us to put notifications in a handbook, no matter how you do that, it creates issues. … If somebody wants to not participate they can provide their own note.”
Of course, printing a special opt-out form is a little much—and beyond the strict requirement of Florida’s new law, a law that doesn’t actually create any new rights. Parents always had the right, transmitted to students in classrooms, not to say the Pledge of Allegiance. All Florida’s new law really did, then, was to create a burden on schools to notify parents that they have this right.
Saying the pledge is kind of like singing the National Anthem before a sports event. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick recently made a refusal to participate in that show of patriotism famous when he knelt during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner at a preseason football game. Saying the pledge really isn’t much different.
Furthermore, laws that require schools to say the pledge every morning don’t violate atheists’ equal protection rights either. That’s what the New Jersey Superior Court found last year, also ruling that saying the pledge in school doesn’t violate anyone’s religious freedom under the First Amendment, even though the pledge includes the phrase “under God.”
People have always had the right to opt out. Now school districts in Florida just have to add language to their student handbooks to remind parents of this right. We don’t need to make a big deal of it by printing a separate form, because freedom and patriotism mean different things to different people in our diverse society. The freedoms we enjoy don’t include forcing kids to say anything they don’t want to say. Whether that’s on a test or in front of a flag, it’s the same freedom we’re talking about: free expression.