Allegiance to the flag is one thing.

But allegiance to the law is quite another.

So when a caller on a local radio talk show recently reminded Alex Apostle that Montana schools are required to offer the Pledge of Allegiance, the Missoula County Public Schools superintendent picked up the phone.

"I checked with schools in general and asked if we were doing this," said Apostle. "Some said yes, and some said no."

So starting this fall, all MCPS schools will make it a morning ritual - if they hadn't already - for students to stand and recite the pledge, a requirement recently upheld by two federal appeals courts.

"We're going to be upholding what the state says we should be doing," said Apostle, who began his fourth year as MCPS superintendent on July 1.

On the books since 1997, Montana's law requires teachers in kindergarten through sixth-grade classrooms to lead the first period with the pledge. The pledge is also required once per week in seventh through 12th grades.

Montana is one of 33 states that have a requirement for public schools to recite the 119-year-old pledge, laws that have a contentious legal and social history and have faced numerous court challenges - especially since the words "under God" were added in 1948.

In 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down such requirements in a legal challenge filed by Michael Newdow, an atheist, on behalf of his daughter.

But the objectionable language, "under God," was ironically deemed by the same court last year to not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In a challenge again brought by Newdow, the court ruled 2-1 that the phrase was of a "ceremonial and patriotic nature" and not an establishment of religion per se. Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of another case upholding the pledge requirement.

But Montana law, like most others in states with a pledge requirement, has an "opt-out" exemption for students and teachers who do not wish to participate. The law only requires schools to recite it. If a teacher refuses, another teacher or aide must be brought in. The pledge can also be read over the school's intercom to satisfy the requirement.

That option makes sense to Apostle.

"This is America and people have rights," he said. "We always respect the rights of the individual in respect to these issues."

In six states, however - Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas - students can be disciplined if they don't recite the pledge. In 2009, a Maryland girl was dragged out of her classroom by a police officer after her teacher complained that she refused to obey the recitation requirement.

The earliest cases challenging pledge laws were brought by Jehovah's Witnesses, who are bound by their faith not to pledge allegiance to any person, thing or idea other than God.

Apostle said he will bring up the issue with the MCPS board of trustees to clarify the district's intent. MCPS has no written policy on reciting the pledge, he said.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at


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