As Minnesotans break out the red, white and blue for Independence Day, St. Louis Park finds itself immersed in a surprisingly contentious conversation about what it means to be patriotic.

Some residents want City Council members to immediately restore the Pledge of Allegiance to council meetings, following their June 17 vote to stop reciting it.

“I think they made a mistake and they should reinstate it,” retiree Bill Harnist said.

Others want the council to move on to bigger issues. “There’s so many more important things to be talking about. That’s not where the energy belongs,” said Marilyn Klug, another retiree.

With the City Council slated Monday to revisit its decision to drop the pledge, people are choosing sides in a debate more explosive than anyone suspected following the council’s action.

Mayor Jake Spano, who was absent for the vote and said he would have opted to keep the pledge, tweeted that he had heard from more people about the issue than he could count, not just locally but from across the country.

None of the council’s seven members, including Spano, responded Wednesday to requests for comment. No public testimony will be taken at Monday’s meeting, and no vote is expected that night.

Gail Feldman, another St. Louis Park resident, said the most shocking thing to her was not the council’s decision but the fact that many people apparently consider it disrespectful not to say the pledge.

“It’s just words,” Feldman said. “Anybody who was a traitor to the country would be the first person to say those words as loud as possible.”

Through all the noise, a common theme has emerged in the debate: what it means to be an American.

“We’re at this moment when the country is changing. What it means to be American is clearly up for grabs,” said Larry Jacobs, a political-science professor at the University of Minnesota.

A heated debate

Controversy surrounding the Pledge of Allegiance is nothing new, Jacobs said.

“You’ve had protests over the pledge, many protests, there’s been Supreme Court decisions, stretching back decades,” he said.

John Gordon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, was unaware of a similar situation in the state.

“One of the things that is ironic about this, is that you’ve got a situation in which this City Council did something that was intended to be inclusive and welcoming. Assuming that [Spano is] getting this volume of calls that he reports, then you’ve got people on the other side that are really weaponizing the Pledge of Allegiance,” Gordon said.

The Eugene, Ore., City Council agreed in 2011 to say the pledge just four times a year: near Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Flag Day and July 4th. Before that decision, the Eugene council hadn’t used the pledge at all.

Nationally, the debate over whether the pledge should be said in schools has been heated since a 1943 Supreme Court decision ruling that students couldn’t be forced to say the pledge in public schools.

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed a bipartisan bill in 2002 that would have required Minnesota public schools to recite the pledge at least once a week. Ventura, a Navy veteran who ran as a reform candidate, said that patriotism should be a matter of free choice. After he left office his successor, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, signed a similar bill.

New St. Louis Park resident Jennifer Carnahan, who chairs the state Republican Party, said she thinks the council made the wrong decision and that the pledge should not be politicized. Carnahan, who was adopted after being left on the steps of a hospital in South Korea, said she wakes up every day “so proud to be an American citizen.”

‘America’s future’

What the City Council did, Carnahan said, “diminishes and disrespects” the hard work done by immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

“I’m proud of the foundation that our country was built on, and I’m proud of the symbolism that our flag, and reciting the pledge, stands for and means,” she said.

Over the past few years, St. Louis Park has moved toward racial equality in city programs and services. The city in 2018 hired its first racial equity coordinator, who works to bring diverse residents into the local government process.

As the country continues to change, the need for positions like these within local governments will continue to increase, said Jacobs.

“I think this is America’s future. We’re going to be having this conversation about how we think about Americanness and how we kind of acknowledge and honor it without creating discomfort,” Jacobs said.

The reason to drop the pledge, according to Council Member Anne Mavity, was “to make sure that we are welcoming to everyone in our community.” She called the pledge “an unnecessary component to include every single week in our work.”

St. Louis Park long has been known as one of the foremost Jewish enclaves in the Twin Cities. Many of north Minneapolis’ Jewish residents moved there as suburbanization took hold after World War II.

According to U.S. Census data from 2018, St. Louis Park has a population of just over 49,000 residents. Of that total, 83% are white, 7.7% are black, 3.8% are Latino, 3.7% are Asian and 3.3% cite two or more races. In Minnesota as a whole, 83.7% are white, 5.9% are black, 4.7% are Asian, 2.8% claim two or more races and 1% are American Indian, according to the most recent American Community Survey.

A spot check of Minnesota cities showed that Blaine, Brooklyn Center, Burnsville, Duluth, Eden Prairie, Mankato, Maplewood, Moorhead, Rochester, St. Cloud, St. Paul, Stillwater and Wayzata all include the pledge as part of the council meeting agenda. The pledge is not said at council meetings in Minneapolis and Edina.

Gretchen Lord of St. Louis Park said she was surprised by the council’s decision but pleased with the feedback the council has received.

“There’s so many things that we seem to just decide that it’s old and we don’t need to do it anymore. And yet, most of us were brought up with it,” she said. “I just think it’s one of the few things that’s left that probably needs to be left alone.”