The idea was well-intentioned: City council members in St. Louis Park, a left-leaning Minneapolis suburb, wanted to make sure that all residents felt welcome at their bimonthly meetings. So, last week, they voted to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
"I hope it's not too controversial," St. Louis Park City Council Member Tim Brausen told the Star Tribune. "Our community tends to be a very welcoming and increasingly diverse community, and we believe our citizens will understand."
It did, in fact, prove to be controversial.
"Anti-American much?" conservative talk show host Joe Pagliarulo tweeted on Wednesday, June 26. "St Louis Park should no longer be allowed to claim it's in the United States of America."
Right in time for the Fourth of July, the city of just over 49,000 people is being accused of insufficient patriotism, and its nonpartisan city council is showing signs that it may reconsider. Neither St. Louis Park's mayor nor any of the six council members could be reached for comment late Thursday night, but Jacque Smith, the communications and marketing manager for the city, told The Washington Post in an email that the council plans to revisit its decision at a July 8 study session "after hearing many comments from the community."
Anti-American much? St Louis Park should no longer be allowed to claim it's in the United States of America. https://t.co/HCWi9hu4sw— Joe Pags Pagliarulo (@JoeTalkShow) June 27, 2019
For decades, city protocol dictated that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance had to be the first item on the agenda for each council meeting. Council Member Anne Mavity, who introduced the proposal to change that rule, told KARE 11 that saluting the flag every single time wasn't really necessary, and didn't reflect the city's commitment to diversity.
"Not everyone who does business with the city or has a conversation is a citizen," she said. "They certainly don't need to come into city council chambers and pledge their allegiance to our country in order to tell us what their input is about a sidewalk in front of their home."
Brausen, similarly, told the Star Tribune that while he didn't recall getting any complaints about the pledge, the council worried that it could intimidate new immigrants at a moment of heightened political polarization. The city has been making a concerted effort "to get more diverse communities and historically less engaged communities to come and participate in our public process," he explained, but "given the current Washington politics that are going on now, there's a lot of people that are afraid of our government, and we worry about that."
City officials had adopted the custom of saying the pledge at each meeting during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, Brausen added, but since then, the climate had changed dramatically.
"Unfortunately, some of us feel like patriotism has been so politicized that it's almost used as a weapon against people," he said.
Like Minnesota as a whole, St. Louis Park is whiter and less diverse than the United States overall, but the city proudly touts its religiously, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods. According to the most recent U.S. census estimates, 7.7 percent of the city's population identifies as black or African American, 3.7 percent as Asian, and 3.8 percent as Latino or Hispanic. The city has also historically had a large Jewish population, and a significant number of Russian Jewish emigres settled there after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, D, who lived there as a child, recalled in a 2018 Facebook post that the city then had been known as the Jewish suburb of Minneapolis and felt like a safe haven "where we could thrive, worship how we pleased, and become anything we wanted in life," despite the fact that redlining had limited where Jewish families could buy houses.
As Minnesota has grown more heterogeneous with an influx of refugees, St. Louis Park has positioned itself as a champion of diversity. In 2018, the city council approved a series of strategic priorities that includes "being a leader in racial equity and inclusion in order to create a more just and inclusive community for all," and hired its first-ever racial equity coordinator. Currently, the lead display on the city's website is an advertisement aimed at residents interested in running for city council, illustrated by a drawing of a woman in a hijab, a bespectacled African American man, and another man who could be Hispanic or Asian.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it took less than three minutes for the council to agree that they would stop requiring the Pledge of Allegiance at meetings, "in order to create a more welcoming environment to a diverse community," as Brausen put it when the vote came up at the end of the June 17 meeting.
Noting that the council had previously discussed the issue in a study session, Brausen reminded attendees that they weren't banning the pledge altogether, and could still choose to add it to the agenda on special occasions, or if they had a Boy Scout color guard in attendance. Without further discussion, all five members who were present voted unanimously to pass the resolution.
Anyone familiar with the decades-old debate about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools could likely have predicted what would happen next. By Wednesday, the local media had gotten wind of the change, and though some residents said they didn't have a problem with getting rid of the pledge, it didn't take long for reporters to find people willing to go on record opposing the idea.
"I really think they should say that because this is America," one woman told local Fox affiliate KMSP. Said another: "If we go to other countries, they're not going to accommodate us so I just feel we should hold to it."
On Flag Avenue in St. Louis Park, a man who had appropriately bedecked his lawn with tiny American flags told CBS affiliate WCCO that he believed the pledge should be said every day, both in official meetings and schools. "We owe it to the country," he said.
Before long, social media was lighting up with angry all-caps reactions and vows to boycott the city. Minnesota Senate Republicans declared the decision to drop the pledge "SHOCKING." Pete Hegseth, a weekend co-host on "Fox & Friends" who grew up outside Minneapolis, tweeted that it was "LUNACY."
"I'm a new and diverse resident living in St. Louis Park and eliminating the pledge doesn't accommodate me, it offends me," tweeted Jennifer Carnahan, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota. "And for the record, you can't say you 'love our country' and then eliminate the pledge."
On Thursday, the Star Tribune's editorial board also sounded a dissenting note, arguing that people could always opt to stay silent during the pledge, or to signal their protest "within reason."
"All in this country in any capacity should cherish living in a place where differences of opinion and passion freely exist, albeit tensely," the paper's editorial concluded. "Given the emotional scenes at naturalization ceremonies, we'd bet that new and prospective citizens, especially, understand what's at stake."
Local talk-show host Joe Soucheray was somewhat less restrained in his criticism. "Without hyperbole this is an American tragedy," he wrote on Twitter. "It is tantamount to holding America in contempt."
The city's own mayor came out against the change, too. Jake Spano, who had been out of town with his family, told the Star Tribune that if he had attended the June 17 meeting, he would have voted against taking the Pledge of Allegiance off the agenda.
"While I've never been a fan of doing things just because that's the way things have always been done, I've always used the last six words [of the pledge] - 'With liberty and justice for all' - as a reminder to me that we need to make our community more open and welcoming for all our neighbors, not just a select few," he told the paper, adding that he felt there were more substantive actions that the council could take to make the city more inclusive.
Late Thursday night, Spano addressed the controversy on Twitter, saying that he had heard from "more people than I can count" in the past day, though many weren't from St. Louis Park. "Historically when a decision is made by the council, it's over and we move on," he wrote. In this case, though, he said, he had asked the council to revisit their decision, and a majority had agreed.
Mavity, the council member who authored the resolution to eliminate the pledge, didn't seem surprised that her proposal generated a debate.
"To me, saying the Pledge of Allegiance is not the barometer on patriotism," she told Minnesota Public Radio on Thursday. "If anything, patriotism and American values allows a variety of opinions and I welcome people to disagree. That's what democracy is all about."
This article was written by Antonia Noori Farzan, a reporter for The Washington Post.