FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. More than 150 people shouted "under God" and held up signs bearing crosses and flags as the school board turned down a request to take the Pledge of Allegiance out of classrooms.
The crowd spilled from the Okaloosa County School Board's meeting room into the hallways in this Florida Panhandle military town, which is surrounded by Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field.
Two parents, both Army veterans, stood alone Monday in urging the board to banish the pledge on grounds the phrase "under God" violates their children's rights of free speech and religion under the First Amendment.
They were greeted by angry shouts, clapping and singing from the audience. The crowd earlier screamed "under God" when saying the pledge as the meeting began.
"The only way I'd change it is if federal troops came down here and made me change it," said Board Chairman Rodney Walker.
The parents, Marcel and Stephney Aigret, a divorced couple, said they were motivated by the June ruling of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California that "under God" was unconstitutional.
"The pursuit of religious freedom was the catalyst for establishing this great nation," Marcel Aigret said. "Let us all be patriots by ensuring there is liberty and justice for all."
The 38-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran said the issue affected his family because the religious faith of his children's mother differs from the one expressed in the pledge.
Stephney Aigret said she prays to Share, an American Indian goddess of liberty, and that her children are not taught to believe only in a Judeo-Christian god.
"This is not a nation where all pray to God," she told the board. "Your words have been indoctrinating my children into a religion against my will and telling my children that there is no Goddess."
She later said she had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union but has no immediate plans to pursue the issue in court.
The Aigrets argued that a state law requiring public school children to recite the pledge every day amounts to forced religious indoctrination.
School Superintendent Don Gaetz disagreed. He said the school district is required to follow the law, which let any student abstain with written permission from a parent or guardian.
"The Pledge of Allegiance is not a public prayer," Gaetz said. "It is the first expression of patriotism a child learns."
Stephney Aigret said she does not intend to write a letter of exemption for her children because she believes that would amount to waiving her constitutional rights.
The crowd, many dressed in red, white and blue, shouted "Hallelujah" when Gaetz promised to keep the pledge. It also broke into a chorus of "Amazing Grace" when Stephney Aigret tried to speak past a three-minute time limit.
As the audience sang, she urged that people refuse to stand and say the pledge at school functions.
"I call upon all women, men, young and old of all the world religions to sit for their rights," she said. "Do not stand for this lie anymore."