Many kids don't see Pledge as religious

As 'under God' controversy goes to the Supreme Court, kids and parents ponder how big a deal it is to them.

Grayson Crady is making a beeline for the swings at Houston's Memorial Park. This Monday, as on every other, he recited the Pledge of Allegiance with his third-grade class - and for him, as for many children nationwide, saying "under God" is no big deal. "Everybody says it," he says - then corrects himself. "I guess there's one kid in my class that doesn't say it. But he's kinda weird." [Editor's note: Crady's name was misspelled in the original version.]

For many adults - and Wednesday for US Supreme Cout justices - "under God" is among America's most contentious phrases, going all the way to the High Court as justices hear the case Wednesday. Yet for the children who recite it daily or weekly, "under God" is often an afterthought - if it's thought about at all.

"Sometimes I think about what it says," says Houston 10th grader Ryan Rasmus. "But sometimes I don't even say it. I might be doing something else or thinking about something else."

To the degree that kids do think about it, the words don't necessarily feel religious - though they may not feel appropriate, either. First grader Sabrina Diaz, sitting in the corner of a gym doing homework while her father lifts weights, says simply: "Saying it makes me happy. I like looking at the flag."

And third-grader Will Hollo offers a solution he saw on TV: "Under God," should be "under Constitution."

To many adults, the Pledge is, in part, an effort to instill common values, patriotism, or simple routine. But should it be done without "under God" - words added in 1954, 62 years after the Pledge originated?

Grayson's mother, Hilary, cradling her infant daughter with one hand and holding her dachshund's leash in the other, thinks "too much has been made over it," and has no problem with her two sons reciting "under God." "Kids should be taught to believe in something of higher moral value," she says.

To Frank Hines, a minister at the Boston Church of Christ and a strong believer in the Pledge for his second- and fifth-grade children, there's an analogy to teaching homosexuality in schools. "I might disagree with it, but my kids need to understand it."

And for some immigrants, the Pledge cultivates not only religion, but a sense of belonging as well. "It teaches children to respect [their] country, especially for my family" says Patty Daidone, a first-generation Italian-American with a second grader about to make her first communion. "We are proud to be here."

Jennifer Elliot, dropping off her kindergartner in Dorchester, Mass., says the pledge helps kids "start the day all unified, with a structure." As for religion, she recalls a time before her own faith took hold. "I wasn't a Christian five years ago, so I remember what it's like. I don't know why it's such a big deal.... Look at all of our dollar bills: Should people who don't believe in God not be able to use the money?"

Among older children - those caught in an age between rote recitation and parental concerns - the Pledge case has even become fodder for lessons on law. Recent government classes here at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES) debated the subject in a mock trial, where student Supreme Court "justices" ruled that the controversial words didn't violate the First Amendment.

Sitting at a large oak table in the principal's conference room, a half dozen 16- and 17-year-olds nod approval both of repeating the pledge daily, and - with minor exception - including "under God." It's a moot point with their peers, they say, and across grades four through 12.

"For most people here as long as I've known, it's not a big issue," says 11th-grader Jenny Menderozza. Though all students are expected to stand desks, place their right hands over their hearts, and face the flag as Principal Robert Weinberg reads the Pledge at 8 a.m., they're not required to repeat any or all of the words. Some decline out of boredom or distraction, some drop certain phrases, but most join in completely.

"I don't agree with the line 'under God' and so I don't say it, and that is OK with everyone," says Marcial Jose. "There should be a separation of church and state, but I don't make a big deal out of this because I think it could lead to absurd extremes - like taking 'In God We Trust' off money."

In his office, Mr. Weinberg says that though the issue heated up after 9/11, with district-wide concern about lax participation, the furor has faded. "Schools are about nurturing citizenship, inspiring leadership and pride," he says. "Not a false pride, but a realization of the good things this country has to offer."

Kris Axtman in Houston and Sara B. Miller in Boston contributed to this report.

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