The Ethical Dilemma: Pledge on the Edge

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Pledge On The Edge: I’m an art teacher at an elementary school in New Jersey. The Pledge of Allegiance is done over the loudspeaker every morning. Teachers make the students stand and recite it, which I have an issue with—we are dealing with kids here who don’t get it. I teach from a cart, traveling from room to room, so I’m usually in the hallway when the pledge is happening. Out of what I feel is respect, I stand and remain silent. If there are kids walking in the hallway, I just tell them to stop walking, but others ask them to put their hands on their hearts and say the pledge.

I wonder, though, is it really my place to attempt to explain their options that they won’t understand anyway? All they will hear is that I said they don’t have to recite the pledge, which will spread like wildfire, and other kids won’t want to do it out of pure retaliation, not because they understand why they don’t have to. It’s a sensitive situation, and I’m not sure where to draw the line in terms of having kids show respect to others and in attempting to explain their rights when they can’t even tie their shoes.

–And to the Republican Witch It Stands

Dear Stands,

You are bringing back memories of when I was in kindergarten in New Jersey, and not only did we stand and salute the flag every morning (with the brand new “under God” insertion), we also read psalms from the Bible or recited the Lord’s Prayer. And this was public school! I couldn’t pronounce “allegiance,” let alone understand what it meant; we all thought our one nation was somehow invisible and we believed the name of the lord our shepherd, who we didn’t want, was Halloween. So confusing!

So I see your point about making fine points to children whose more immediate concerns are how soon is snack time, can they go to the bathroom, and why can’t they hit each other.

I’m wondering if your school is public or private, because the rules about not having to say the Pledge of Allegiance apply only to public schools. I’m surprised that public schools in New Jersey are still doing that, as my kids—products of the NYC public school system—don’t even know the pledge by heart. My research indicates that, thanks to a case brought by the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, although NJ public schools can still continue to do the pledge, they can’t require individual participation.

To me (and I’m pretty sure to you), the idea of young children, or anyone, being expected to stop in their tracks, slap their hands over their hearts, and recite what are to them meaningless words in response to an authoritative voice over the PA system, smacks of a totalitarian dystopia as envisioned in George Orwell’s 1984 or Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.

But you’re not asking about what you can do to stop this whole practice, just how you personally should handle it when you and some innocent, impressionable little kid are stuck in the hall when Big Brother comes on. At a private school, you would need to check school policy for what you are permitted to say or do. If your school is public, as a teacher you should remain neutral with regard to the students: Don’t encourage or discourage anyone from standing and saying the Pledge, sitting it out, or skipping “under god.” But you yourself have the right to do whatever you choose, and what you’ve been doing is fine. And if anyone, including a student, asks why you don’t recite or if they must, be honest and let them know they have options, which they can check out at

And then if anyone tries to bully you about that, tattle to the legal eagles at the AHA. You don’t have to stand for that, or for the pledge. Standing up for your rights, and those of your students, is more patriotic, American, and mature than behaving like a puppet manipulated by invisible strings.