The Pledge of Allegiance isn't found in our country's foundational documents, nor is it mandated by law to recite at any function.
It’s been the source of arguments taken as far as the Supreme Court. This time, the one-sentence expression memorized by millions of citizens has been under scrutiny in the context of city council agendas.
Minnesota has been in the national spotlight as city councils are debating whether to recite the Pledge of Allegiance before meetings.
Red Wing City Council and a Prescott City Council members have recently joined the discussion.
The national conversation erupted in June when the St. Louis Park City Council voted unanimously to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before each meeting. According to council member Tim Brausen, “In order to create a more welcoming environment to a diverse community, we’re going to forego saying the Pledge of Allegiance before every meeting.”
This decision led to a national outcry, including a tweet from President Donald Trump, stating: “The Pledge of Allegiance to our great Country, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is under siege.”
The Pledge of Allegiance to our great Country, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is under siege. That is why I am going to win the Great State of Minnesota in the 2020 Election. People are sick and tired of this stupidity and disloyalty to our wonderful USA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2019
Due to local and national pressure, St. Louis Park voted July 15 to reinstate reciting the pledge.
Though St. Louis Park was the epicenter of this conflict, not every city says the Pledge of Allegiance before council meetings. Minneapolis, for example, does not.
Red Wing to decide on agenda language in 2020
The Pledge of Allegiance is said before every Red Wing City Council meeting, but the practice is optional.
In the “Rules of order and procedures for boards and commissions,” the city has noted:
“Boards and commissions are encouraged, but not mandated to include the Pledge of Allegiance, public comment and board/commission comments (previously called concerns) on their business agenda.”
Mayor Sean Dowse is presenting this language to boards and commissions over the summer. Each individual board and commission in Red Wing will decide whether it will include the pledge in agendas. The decision will not need to be made until 2020.
This language was approved by the Red Wing City Council during the March 25 council meeting.
"The issue I have with this is where the boards and commissions are encouraged but not mandated to include the Pledge of Allegiance. ... I really feel that it's an important thing to say, particularly if we're in the council chambers here where there is the flag," council member Kim Beise said during the March 25 meeting.
Council President Dean Hove noted that "up until very recent years, the Pledge of Allegiance was not said by any board members, at any event." He went on to say that he believes it is important that boards and commissions are able to make their own decisions on whether the pledge will be included in the agenda or not.
"My feelings personally," Hove said, "Is I think it should be said at every single meeting. But that's my personal feelings. But what this addresses is a few years and many discussions at the council level."
The Red Wing City Council voted 6-1 in favor of the language. Beise was the no-vote.
While this language is new to the city, it does not mark the beginning of boards and commissions having the choice to say the pledge or not. Currently, the city has boards and commissions that do not include the pledge on their agendas.
Prescott council member sits during pledge
At a July 22 Prescott City Council meeting, 1st and 2nd ward alderperson Maureen Otwell sat during the Pledge of Allegiance to bring to light its complicated history and the implications of nativism she believes the strict tradition brings.
“I thought we all needed a little civic lesson,” Otwell said in a later phone interview. "...Your patriotism and the way you express that is guaranteed under the First Amendment of freedom of speech whether you participate (in saying the pledge) or not.”
Mayor David Hovel said Otwell approached him before the meeting and told him she would be sitting. She later read from a written statement during public comment about her decision to sit.
According to her statement, Otwell wanted to “make a point about our country’s civil liberties” and explained that the pledge and the act of standing with hand over heart is “just tradition.”
“The civil liberties of individual citizens are threatened by the use of this pledge as a litmus test for true patriotism to this country,” Otwell wrote.
Having a historian’s heart and a civic consciousness, Otwell further wrote she was discouraged to hear about the debate in St. Louis Park and didn’t think council members gave a coherent reason for not saying the pledge.
In a few paragraphs from her statement, Otwell briefed the council and its audience on the history of the pledge she had gathered.
Otwell’s statement described how the pledge is associated with a xenophobic history, where incoming immigrants were considered not racially, religiously or politically pure enough.
Immigrants are only required to recite the naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States, a statement officially drafted in regulations in 1929.
The Pledge of Allegiance originated from socialist Baptist minister Francis Bellamy in 1892, who wrote the salute for children participating in a program for the 400th anniversary of Christoper Columbus’ arrival, according to The Smithsonian magazine.
Revisions were made to the pledge over the years, adding “of the United States of America” and “under God” on two separate occasions, distinguishing which country’s flag was being saluted and discouraging communism.
“I just think we need to pull down the rhetoric and remember that no citizen of the United States except those who are new citizens, ever take an oath of allegiance to the country,” Otwell said in an interview.
The pledge at Prescott’s meetings
Prescott’s City Council meeting agendas list “Pledge of Allegiance” as the third item, but it has not always been a permanent fixture.
The pledge wasn’t on the agenda until current mayor David Hovel opted to include it around 2014 when he was elected.
Otwell stated at the July 22 meeting that “no one complained” when this change was made.
Hovel said it was true that other mayors had not put the pledge on agendas, at least for years, and he wanted to bring back the Pledge of Allegiance at meetings because of his patriotism.
“It’s a good thing to do and acknowledge the flag and what it stands for. I like that idea; we don’t have enough of that. Maureen is very open and likes to give all sides, that’s a great thing. That's what makes working with them very good, we have diverse opinions,” Hovel said in a later phone interview.
No action was taken following Otwell’s presentation and City Administrator Jayne Brand said there were no reactions from other council members.
Otwell said in a phone interview that she has not decided whether or not she will continue to sit during Prescott’s public meetings, but said she probably will withhold from participating.