DENVER The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit yesterday seeking to throw out a new Colorado law requiring teachers and students to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Mark Silverstein, legal director for the Colorado chapter of the ACLU, says the law violates the First Amendment.
"Public expressions of belief in the ideals of liberty and justice should be voluntary, not coerced," Silverstein said. "By forcing individuals to pledge allegiance, this Colorado law violates the fundamental freedoms that the American flag is meant to represent."
Nine teachers and students from the schools joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs. Keaty Gross, one of the students, said she is patriotic and also believes in freedom.
"There should not be only one way to express your patriotism," she said in a statement provided by the ACLU.
Attorney General Ken Salazar said the state would respond in court. "I believe the law is legally defensible," he said.
Defendants named in the lawsuit included Gov. Bill Owens, Education Commissioner Bill Moloney, and four school districts, including Jefferson, Denver, Aurora and Cherry Creek.
Owens said the ACLU was seeking publicity.
"The Pledge of Allegiance is a treasured and positive civic tradition. This is a frivolous and gratuitous attempt by the ACLU to demean a law that is clearly constitutional," Owens said.
State Rep. Bill Crane, R-Arvada, who sponsored the legislation, said there is no punishment for people who refuse to say the pledge.
"Why people who live here and have freedom and liberty wouldn't care to do it, I don't know," Crane said.
The law exempts individuals who object to the pledge on religious grounds and also non-citizens. The ACLU said the law does not allow objections based on conscience. Students also can be exempt if their parents give them a written excuse.
The ACLU cited a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down 60 years ago on behalf of Jehovah's Witnesses who were expelled from school because they would not recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Court said in that 1943 ruling, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, that no government official had the power to compel individuals to pledge their allegiance.
Last month, a federal judge in Pennsylvania barred state education officials from enforcing a state law that requires public and private school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem each morning.
U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelly agreed with plaintiffs' arguments that the law violates students' right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court is to announce this fall whether it will consider the issue of mandating the recitation of the pledge in public schools. The case before the Court came from California, where a doctor persuaded a federal appeals court that the regular morning classroom salute to the American flag is unconstitutional because of the phrase "one nation, under God."