The sun broke through thin clouds at just the right moment, as three soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard hoisted the American flag outside the Poplar Bridge Elementary School in Bloomington.
The kids got quiet as the National Anthem crackled from a boombox and the flag squeaked up the pole into the sun. Then, hats off and hands to hearts, they recited the Pledge of Allegiance in strong, confident voices in honor of Veterans Day.
Some students were dressed in camouflage hats, others had coats with "Princess" or "Old School" written on them. At least one girl wore a hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf.
Principal Gail Swor stood before the students and told them to pay attention to the Guard soldiers, "because today is a very important day."
It was also a busy day for Swor. News had gone out that the groups that traditionally had officiated the event at Bloomington schools, the local American Legion and VFW, had declined to participate because the schools would not allow them to lead students in a prayer.
Swor said the groups had never prayed during the ceremony until last year, when they surprised Swor by praying. She explained that leading prayer in public schools is not acceptable. But she was only one of several educators and parents who complained a year ago.
The Bloomington School District and the groups have tried to negotiate ever since, but as Terry Selle, commander of American Legion Post 550 told our reporter, "My guys say if they can't do the ceremony they've done for 40 years, they won't do it." Selle said the Legion also will hold back scholarships estimated at $25,000 to $30,000 in the district, which may be the most unfortunate outcome of all.
It seems to me that school officials took pains to make the ceremony work. About 23 percent of the students are minority members, and among the largest groups are Vietnamese and Somali. They are predominantly of non-Christian faiths. So, to respect them and the vets, school officials suggested a moment of silence so students could use that time to say their own prayers, or not. It was the Legion and VFW that backed out, not the schools. Though some Legion and VFW members are upset with them, National Guard members deserve thanks for taking their place.
Rick Kaufman, spokesman for the district, correctly points out that even if it agreed with the Legion on prayer, permitting it would have been a violation of the U.S. Constitution and several Supreme Court rulings. It also could have led to a lawsuit, according to Teresa Nelson, legal counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
"This was a school-sponsored event, not a public event where the Legion had rented a park," Nelson said. "Students do have a right to pray when they want," but it can't be mandated and orchestrated. A moment of silence to think about vets would be fine, she said.
The ACLU is engaged in a lawsuit about just such behavior. It sued Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), a charter school for Muslims, saying that the school illegally led children in daily Islamic prayer. "This issue is very similar," Nelson said.
Selle sounds like a decent guy trying to do what his members think is right. He said Friday they'd received about 80 calls on the issue, most of them in support. The group did participate in ceremonies at Catholic and Lutheran parochial schools.
Selle said the Legion's national office found cases in which they were allowed to pray on school grounds, and that he hoped something could be worked out. "We don't want to coerce anyone," he said.
Most important, he said the scholarships will still be given out, and that individual students in the public system are still welcome to apply directly to the Legion for them.
Swor and the district also got plenty of support for their decision. One of those who sent a letter was Van Mueller, a veteran who served during the Korean War. Mueller wrote:
"They seem to frequently confuse theocracy with democracy. Or that we are a nation of Christians [a majority] rather than a Christian nation. Although their threats don't surprise me I do hope that they don't punish students by withholding scholarship funding."
"I thought [Gail Swor] would get pretty beat up on that one, and unnecessarily," said Mueller, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. "Like Gail said, it's a no-brainer. It's the law."
Another writer said:
"It is important to celebrate and protect our Constitutional freedoms every day, but especially on Veterans Day. If we do not stand up for the Constitution, then our veterans' sacrifice will have been in vain. You did the right thing, and the American Legion should be ashamed."
The kids at Poplar Bridge were serious Wednesday and seemed to recognize that it was indeed an important day for veterans.
It was also an important day for civil liberties and the law.
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