FRANKFORT — All Kentucky public schools would have to set aside time each day for students to face the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance under a bill backed by Republican senators.
Senate Bill 15, which sponsors call the Kentucky School Patriot Act, was filed last week and is scheduled for a vote Thursday in the Senate Education Committee.
Students who don't want to participate in the pledge "may quietly stand or remain seated but shall respect the rights of those pupils electing to participate," according to the bill.
"I think it's sort of important — and the earlier the age, the better — that (students) learn to respect the flag and the country that educates them," said Sen. Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, one of five sponsors. "And, hopefully, this respect will pass on to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, their schools and the teachers they're listening to every day."
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At present, state law says schools "shall establish" a policy by which students "may participate" in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it does not specifically require the schools to set aside a period of time to do so. However, as a matter of practice, most schools do. The Kentucky Department of Education said Tuesday it doesn't monitor pledge participation, but most elementary schools offer the pledge at the start of the school day.
At least 170 of Kentucky's 174 public school districts now have a policy on the pledge in place, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association. Brad Hughes, the association's spokesman, said 155 districts have a policy providing that each student shall be given the opportunity to begin the school day with the pledge to the flag.
Policies may vary some from district to district, Hughes said, but they also generally provide that students can't be required to participate in the pledge against their own or their parents' wishes.
The Fayette County Public Schools have a policy requiring "each student shall be afforded the opportunity" to begin each school day with the pledge of allegiance.
Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said the bill is intended "to score political points" for legislators without addressing the actual needs of Kentucky schools.
"I look at that bill as an attempt, once again, to stigmatize children who for whatever reason don't join in with the rest of the group to stand up and recite the pledge," Stein said. "There is no reason in the world for us to take the time to pass a law like that. It's just unnecessary."
The Kentucky Education Association has not taken a position on the bill at this point, said KEA president Sharron Oxendine.
"I don't know why we have to pass a law to require something that every school district already does," Oxendine said. "I don't think you can legislate patriotism."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky said the bill is acceptable because it would give students the choice on whether or not to participate. The U.S. Supreme Court established that right in a 1943 decision, said William Sharp, an ACLU attorney in Louisville.
"Government officials, including school administrators, lack the authority to force students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance against their will," Sharp said.
Reading from the 1943 court decision, he added, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."