Olympia council asked to return Pledge of Allegiance to its meetings after nearly a quarter-century

Members of the Olympia Fire Department lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the first meeting of the Olympia City Council on April 12, 2011, in the council chambers at the new Olympia City Hall.
Members of the Olympia Fire Department lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the first meeting of the Olympia City Council on April 12, 2011, in the council chambers at the new Olympia City Hall. Staff file, 2011

Is it time for the Olympia City Council to bring back the Pledge of Allegiance?

The council is the only such legislative entity in Thurston County to forgo the practice of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of official business meetings.

The city councils in Lacey, Tumwater, Tenino and Yelm all kick off their meetings with the pledge. So do the commissioner boards for the Port of Olympia and Thurston County. So do the board of directors for the Olympia, Tumwater and North Thurston school districts. The pledge is also recited during floor sessions at the Legislature.

The Pledge of Allegiance has been missing from Olympia City Council meetings since 1994, when the practice was reportedly dropped without controversy. The council had agreed to remove the pledge from agendas because “the rote recitation” served no useful purpose, according to Bob Jacobs, who was Olympia’s mayor at the time and one of three military veterans on the dais.

“It was not like we had any objection to the pledge,” Jacobs recalled. “We didn’t announce it. We just dropped it from the agenda, and nobody really noticed.”

Jacobs added: “What really matters is what we do with our lives, not what we repeat.”

City Manager Steve Hall — who was assistant city manager at the time — said “very, very few requests” have surfaced over the years to bring back the Pledge of Allegiance to council meetings. He also said the pledge may not be unifying for some people and that the words “under God” could clash with different religious beliefs.

“I can also see potential for the pledge as an opportunity for some dissent by people not standing or not saying the pledge or by adding their own words,” Hall told The Olympian. “Given the recent divisiveness at the federal level and concerns about the national government, I am not sure it would be a great unifying tool for our community.”

Over the years, the Pledge of Allegiance has returned to council chambers at least once: during the first Olympia City Council meeting at the new City Hall building on April 12, 2011.

However, a request for reviving the pledge came this month from Olympia resident Michael Dean during the public comment period at the council’s March 7 meeting. Dean asked the council to consider modifying protocols to include the Pledge of Allegiance, which he likened to a remedy for today’s divisive times.

“This would be one step in constantly reaffirming our unity and community while demonstrating that while we may all differ on the political details, we love the same country,” he said, supporting the pledge’s place in public decorum. “We have so few opportunities to publicly demonstrate our unity as a nation.”

Mayor Cheryl Selby said no constituent has brought up the issue until recently. She noted that a U.S. flag can always be seen on the dais where the elected council members conduct public business.

“Our greatest example of patriotism is our allegiance to the democratic process,” Selby told The Olympian. “All seven of us sit in service to American democracy and I don’t feel there should be a forced litmus test for whether one city is more patriotic than another.”

After a citizen complaint, the Lacey City Council resumed the practice in 2004. At the time, former deputy mayor Virgil Clarkson supported the pledge as a respectful gesture to the country and military veterans, noting that “it only takes a minute.” The Port of Olympia board of commissioners began leading the pledge at meetings in 2007 after resident Bill Pilkey raised the issue.

Tumwater Mayor Pete Kmet said the Pledge of Allegiance has been recited at his city’s council meetings for as long as he can remember, and that no discussion has surfaced on whether to keep or end the tradition.

“It’s just something we do,” Kmet said. “For me, it’s a very meaningful statement about our country.”

The Pledge of Allegiance has been in place since 1892, although it has undergone some revisions over the years. The current version was adopted in 1954 after Congress passed a resolution to incorporate the words “under God” into the pledge:

“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.”

According to the United States Flag Code, the official version should be recited while facing the flag and holding your right hand over your heart, a practice that was adopted in 1942. Americans had long saluted the flag with a straight-armed “Bellamy salute,” but the gesture became controversial during World War II because of its similarity to the Nazi salute.

Washington law allows school boards to ask students to recite the pledge and protects students from punishment if they refuse to participate.