November 29, 2014

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State budget: Lawmakers strip schools’ ability to ban Pledge of Allegiance

OBERLIN — To pledge, or not to pledge, soon may be up to each teacher.

The $50.5 billion state budget bill passed with a provision that strips school districts such as Oberlin of the authority to decide whether they want to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

State Sen. Gary Cates, a Republican from the Cincinnati area, offered the amendment after hearing about Oberlin Schools’ decades-old policy of not allowing the pledge.

Currently, school boards for the state’s 613 public school districts set their own policies on the pledge.

Under the amendment, teachers would decide whether students in their classrooms will say the pledge. The amendment still would allow individual students to choose not to recite the pledge, but the proposal would prohibit anyone from altering it, such as adding or removing words.

Oberlin residents who oppose saying the pledge said they are upset.

“I think it’s a big fat mistake,” said Shirley R. Johnson, a retired teacher and activist in Oberlin. “It gives the authority to each classroom teacher — it’s going to cause problems.

“Parents are going to say, ‘I want my children in Mrs. Smith’s class because she says the pledge or in Mrs. Jones’s class because she doesn’t.’ ”

Another Oberlin resident, June Goodwin, said some parents won’t be comfortable if teachers lead the students in the pledge.

“We’ve got Buddhists who don’t want to say ‘Under God’ and people who don’t yet have liberty and justice for all,” Goodwin said.

Gov. Ted Strickland does not plan to get involved, spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said.

“We have no plans to line-item-veto it,” she said.

Pledge supporters and opponents have been battling for months on whether Oberlin Schools should change its policy. The school board voted 3-2 on May 26 to leave its current no-pledge policy in place.

Pledge supporter and parent Shawn Marcin, who first raised the issue, said he had mixed feelings.

“I think it’s sad that it came to the point that the state government felt the need to step in and do what we were trying to do ourselves,” he said.

Another pledge supporter, Howard Codney, commander of the Oberlin post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he was “very pleased.”

“Teachers are the leaders for our children and I think we can put it in their hands,” Codney said.

Carrie Davis, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the provision could be challenged on the basis of the First Amendment right to free speech.

“It takes the decision away from elected school boards and allows individual teachers to decide on their own the policy,” Davis said.

“Our concern is it also takes away people’s ability to say the pledge in the way they are comfortable,” she said. “The legislature cannot be in the business of deciding what people can or cannot say.”

Area legislators said they had not yet had any public input.

“I’d like to hear what people have to say,” said state Sen. Sue Morano, D-Lorain, who voted for the budget bill.

State Rep. Joseph Koziura, D-Lorain, who represents Oberlin and also voted for the budget bill, said he had no problem with the amendment.

“I’m a liberal on most of how I look at things — but I have some good old conservative feelings,” Koziura said. “I find nothing wrong with a prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance.”

When asked if he was surprised Oberlin — a longtime hotbed of liberal thinking — does not say the pledge in its public schools, Koziura chuckled and said, “Yes and no.”

Oberlin Schools Superintendent Geoffrey Andrews was unavailable for comment.

School Board President Beth Weiss said she did not yet have an opinion on the pledge provision.

“It does take it out of the hands of the school board,” Weiss said.

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.