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'Under God' Retained as Stay Is Sought

Despite Monday deadline, educators say they hope students will be allowed to continue saying the traditional pledge.

March 04, 2003|David Pierson and Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writers

Eight-year-old Yesenia Silva led her third-grade classmates at Cheremoya Avenue Elementary School in the Pledge of Allegiance on Monday morning the only way she knows how: with the words "under God" included.

Whether the class will be able to say those words next week depends on judicial system actions far from that Hollywood school.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed on Friday its controversial decision that the phrase makes the pledge unconstitutional. That means California and eight other western states under the court's jurisdiction are supposed to have until next Monday to halt 9.6 million students from saying the traditional version of the pledge. But steps were taken Monday to obtain a stay of that ruling, and legal experts said that such a request would probably be granted.

Meanwhile, in schools across Southern California, pledges went on as usual. Administrators and teachers said they will abide by the ruling if it stands, but none felt compelled to enforce it ahead of next week's deadline. Most said they hoped the reference to God would survive.

At Cheremoya Avenue Elementary, Yesenia's teacher, Brandy Noble, said the ban would interfere with teachers' routines and take away a valuable way of uniting children of various ethnic backgrounds. Noble, who is not religious, believes the pledge has historic value and does not force the issue of faith or patriotism.

"You want teachers to stand together and fight this," said Cheremoya Avenue Principal Chris Stehr. "What are they going to do? Arrest us?"

The ruling also has been criticized for coming at a time when the country has been altered by terrorism and is facing a potential armed conflict in Iraq.

"Right now, with the country at a crossroads of whether they're going to go to war or not, I think it sends the wrong message," said Orange County Supt. of Schools William M. Habermehl. "I hope the U.S. Supreme Court would not blink an eye at reversing this."

Supt. Al Mijares of Santa Ana Unified, Orange County's largest district, said he has no plans to ask schools to start enforcing the ban any earlier than the court requires.

"We don't feel we have to trip all over ourselves to ban the Pledge of Allegiance, which has been part of our public school fabric for decades," he said. "I think it is extremely short-sighted, in my opinion, that we would stop our students from uttering a pledge to this great country."

The school district that first received the complaint over the pledge from an atheist father started its attempts to reverse the ruling. Officials at the Elk Grove Unified School District in a suburb of Sacramento filed a petition with the San Francisco-based appeals court for a stay, pending review of the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Michael Newdow, the father who filed the suit, will be given an opportunity to respond to the request for a stay

In order for a stay to be granted, the petitioner must raise a substantial question of law.

The school board's request was submitted to the judge who wrote the majority opinion -- in this instance, 9th Circuit Judge Alfred T. Goodwin. Ninth Circuit officials said that it is fairly routine for that court to issue a stay in circumstances such as this.

However, even if Goodwin has not ruled on the stay request by the end of the week, the 9th Circuit is unlikely to issue the order that would put into effect its decision on Monday, according to Cathy Catterson, the 9th Circuit's clerk of court.

If Goodwin denied the stay, then the school district could ask the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay, pending a decision by the court on whether it will hear the district's appeal on the case later this year.

No matter what happens in court, some educators said they would not stop the tradition until explicitly ordered to by the California Department of Education.

"Schools have taken an oath to uphold the law, and they will," said Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools.

"But until we get official notice, I suppose we'll go about our business."

At Toluca Lake Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley, Principal Karen Glasgow said she was not focusing on the pledge issue.

"I'm too busy being worried about reading and math to worry about the pledge," Glasgow said. "It's not a top priority for me."


Staff writers Claire Luna, Denise M. Bonilla and Jenifer Ragland contributed to this report.

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