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Furor Over Spanish Version Reopens Pledge Debate

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page C05

Noelle Tepper considers herself a patriot. So when her daughter came home from Windsor Knolls Middle School in Frederick County a few weeks ago complaining that the school was broadcasting the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, she acted.

She called the principal. She dispatched e-mails to the Board of Education, the district's interim superintendent and Michael L. Cady, vice president of the Board of County Commissioners. She called the practice "offensive and disrespectful to our country."

Mita Badshah, principal of Windsor Knolls Middle School, is shown at the school as students Danielle Conners, left, and Kayla Bender raise the flag. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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Tepper said she had no problem promoting cultural diversity, but she considered translating the pledge into another language going too far.

"This is a SACRED oath," Tepper wrote. "It is written in English. Our language is English. I am offended to hear it any other way. I am angry that my child is having to hear this in another language."

More calls from parents came into the principal's office, and as Tepper's e-mail circulated among county officials, Cady (R) called on the school board to halt the practice. The practice was halted.

"I did respond rather vociferously," Cady, a former Marine, said in an interview. "I take the pledge very seriously. I don't say it's sacred. But the words are very special."

Though the controversy has died down, another incident involving a translation of the pledge occurred two weeks ago in Anne Arundel County. A 15-year-old student at Old Mill High School sat down in protest rather than stand as the pledge was recited in another language to celebrate National Foreign Languages Week. Both took place as the Maryland General Assembly considers a bill, introduced last month, that would recognize English as the state's official language.

The incidents highlight the pledge's capacity for stirring controversy over the years, particularly when the nation has absorbed large numbers of immigrants or found itself under foreign threat, according to historians.

And yet, as the pledge became a daily routine at schools and public meetings, its application a national loyalty oath has obscured its origins as a paean to international brotherhood, said Matthew W. Cloud, a Catholic University law student who wrote about the history of the pledge in the Journal of Church and State.

"It was kind of League of Nations stuff -- that we are all kind of brothers in this world," Cloud said. "So in that sense, it doesn't do injustice to the original pledge to recite it in a foreign tongue. But I can see how people can see it that way."

In the United States, oaths have been seen as suspect since before the nation's founding. George Calvert, who was Catholic, resigned from high office rather than take England's oath of religious supremacy. Gen. George Washington sought to require a pledge among former British subjects, but the idea died in Congress.

In 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with Michael Newdow, a California atheist who argued that mandatory recitations of the pledge with the phrase "under God" violated his daughter's constitutional rights. But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision last year on technical grounds because Newdow did not have legal custody of his daughter. Newdow has since refiled the lawsuit with like-minded parents.

The pledge's original author was Francis M. Bellamy, a former Baptist minister who considered himself a Christian socialist. He wrote it in 1892 as part of a nationwide campaign to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. Initially, at just 23 words with no reference to God or the United States, the pledge spoke of "my flag." Children from all over the world attending the Chicago World's Fair the next year participated in a mass recitation, Cloud said.

"Some of them may have recited it in their own tongues, their native languages, I don't know,'' Cloud said in an interview. "But the theme of the pledge was republican ideas."

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