Bill would remove penalties for not reciting Pledge of Allegiance and saluting flag

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DOVER — It may have been a while since you were in school, but you probably remember the Pledge of Allegiance. For students, the pledge quickly becomes part of a daily ritual, something generally performed without a second thought.

But did you know that Delaware students who decline to salute the American flag and recite the pledge could face punishment from the school?

Furthermore, teachers who don’t require their pupils to take part in the brief ceremony are risking an even more severe penalty — jail time.

A bill filed Friday would change that.

House Bill 107 would strike from state code language mandating students and teachers “salute and pledge allegiance to the American flag,” something found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

Delaware law mandates the daily loyalty oath, even allowing for a $50 fine or a prison sentence of up to 10 days for teachers who exempt their charges from the activity.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Paul Baumbach, a Newark Democrat, after a constituent was forced to recite the pledge in school.

After some research, he determined the law is indeed in violation of the U.S. Constitution, prompting the legislation.

“I have to say, it’s been enough years that there’s little in the Delaware code that surprises me ... so it doesn’t really blow me away,” he admitted, while describing the law still being on the books as “disappointing.”

Though it’s unclear how often this law may be invoked — there probably aren’t many teachers languishing in prison for refusing to take or for making their students recite the pledge — Rep. Baumbach sees no reason to keep it.

Nonetheless, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the bill faces some objection in the legislature, pointing to the nation’s politically polarized atmosphere.

Indeed, four Delaware Republicans voted against the state Senate rules last month because a long-standing provision mandating that people in the Senate chamber salute the flag was removed.

In the 1943 court decision, Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority, opined, “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.”

The bill, which has only Democratic co-sponsors, has been assigned to the House Education Committee.

Other bills

Also filed Friday were, among others, proposals to make the University of Delaware and Delaware State University subject to public disclosure laws (they currently have special exemptions, and UD in particular has resisted claims it should be held to the same standard as state agencies), to increase a senior property tax credit from $400 to $500 and to make the endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) the state reptile for the next year.

According to the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute, “A variety of endangered sea turtles find their way onto Delaware beaches each and every year,” including, in 2011, the first recorded green sea turtle nesting here.

The full General Assembly, which has been on break since the end of January, returns March 9.