WASHINGTON - Education Secretary Rod Paige wants the nation's 52 million students to display patriotism by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at 2 p.m. tomorrow.
Mr. Paige's department has sent letters to more than 100,000 public and private elementary and secondary school principals encouraging participation.
The department also spread word of the event through e-mails to governors, state legislators, state school officers, and superintendents.
Students in the central time zone are to say the pledge at 1 p.m., students on mountain time at noon, and students on the West Coast at 11 a.m.
“Teachers in every community in America have been working with students to help them understand what happened on Sept. 11 and to overcome their fears and concerns,'' Mr. Paige wrote. “They have also worked to teach them more about our proud and rich national history and the foundations of our free society.''
Mr. Paige will recite the pledge from a Washington school and is asking students, teachers, and parents to speak with a “unified voice.''
He said, “Together, we can send a loud and powerful message that will be heard around the world: America is `one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.'''
In the past, the Pledge of Allegiance has generated some controversy when students were coerced to recite it despite religious objections. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that students could not be forced to say the pledge.
In Wisconsin, a new state law requiring schools to give students a chance to say the pledge or sing the national anthem each day has sparked criticism from some parents and civil libertarians.
Mr. Paige's request appears to be drawing no such controversy. Neither the American Civil Liberties Union nor Americans United for Separation of Church and State has objected to his request.
“Secretary Paige really made it clear that participation in the pledge is voluntary, and that's pretty much exactly what we would expect in this event, which is designed to teach school children about the foundations of our free society,'' said Terri Schroeder, legislative analyst for the national ACLU.
The synchronized Pledge of Allegiance is being organized by Celebration U.S.A., a nonprofit group based in Orange County, Calif., devoted to teaching children principles of American democracy.
Paula Burton, the group's founder, had been working to coordinate the pledge even before Sept. 11 as part of the annual National School Celebration.
The impetus for organizing such a celebration came in 1988, when Ms. Burton was working as a substitute teacher in Orange County and asked her fourth-grade students what “indivisible'' meant. She was dismayed when they replied, inaccurately, that “it means you can't see it.''
Ms. Burton, a Dutch immigrant, launched a campaign to help students understand the pledge's meaning.
She learned that a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy wrote the pledge in 1892 for a national school celebration to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing in America. Ms. Burton decided to revive the celebration in 1992.
This year, she wanted to increase awareness about the National School Celebration day. But she had no idea how much attention she would generate.
When Mr. Paige's office called her last week, “I was just floored,'' Ms. Burton said. “I almost fell off my dining-room chair.''
Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said department employees came across Ms. Burton's organization while conducting research on resources that might help teachers explain the events of Sept. 11 and enrich lessons on freedom and democracy.
She said many teachers are looking for ways to help students express their feelings and ideas.
Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance in a resolution passed on June 22, 1942. Twelve years later, Congress added the words “under God.''
The text now reads: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.''
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