For 97 years, members of the Rotary Club of Palo Alto have recited the Pledge of Allegiance with hands over hearts, but that tradition officially ended in late October. A slim majority voted to stop reciting the pledge at their weekly meetings, an act that reflects the clubs' changing demographics.
The Rotary is not alone. The Palo Alto University Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto and Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce all forego the pledge, saying that the tradition excludes immigrant members and non-Americans who attend their events.
Groups that continue the tradition, however, say the pledge remains an enduring symbol of unity and continuity.
Dana Tom, Rotary Club of Palo Alto president, said some members questioned saying the pledge two-and-a-half years ago because Rotary is an international organization and the local chapter has many members from other countries. The board discussed the issue in May, then voted unanimously in August to no longer recite the pledge as of September.
But after hearing from some members who wanted to be included in the decision, the board held a vote of all of its members in which 47 wanted to continue the pledge at weekly luncheon meetings, 49 preferred to discontinue it and 33 members did not vote.
The close vote caused the board to approve a compromise on Nov. 11, Tom said.
"We will not recite the pledge at our weekly Monday meetings, but we will at four of our Monday Rotary meetings that are near days when we put U.S. flags along University Avenue," he said by phone, referring to Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day and Veterans Day.
The decision to end the pledge wasn't made lightly, he added. Rotary is, however, the largest non-governmental and non-religious service organization in the world.
"We want to be welcoming to a diverse membership. We have people from other parts of the world and different ages, and we're trying to provide a comfortable environment for that. Rotary is welcoming, whether you're a citizen or not. We want to welcome people who believe in lasting change," he said.
Annette Glanckopf, a Palo Alto Rotary member, said she supported keeping the pledge.
"I'm sort of a traditionalist. I like the concept of honoring our country. I've always liked pomp and circumstance."
The Palo Alto University Rotary Club, the city's other Rotary, has not recited the pledge for about five years, said Katie Cooney, club president. About 30% of the members are foreign-born and include Europeans, East Asians and Africans. Some members hold dual citizenship; others live and work here but aren't quite ready to make the commitment to become citizens. Pledging allegiance to the country may make some uncomfortable, she said.
But ending the pledge isn't a lapse of patriotism, according to Cooney.
"I'm the biggest patriot ever. I'm a daughter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) ... the Mayflower. I love the pledge. I don't think it's obsolete."
She thinks people must unify around a greater vision "to be the best we can be," she said.
"When we're in an international group ... maybe (the pledge) is not the appropriate way to express that unity," she said.
Instead, throughout the year each member stands up and shares something inspiring.
"We can participate in a shared sense of humanity. It shows we are not divided by creed, color or race," she said.
Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto, another international organization, also dropped the pledge. Members may say it one time a year around a patriotic holiday now, said Jim Phillips, a past president.
The Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce also doesn't recite the pledge, although a flag is present at the meetings, Judy Kleinberg, board president, said in an email. Many of the Chamber's member companies and many of the workers of its members aren’t American citizens.
The Chamber's meetings "are more informal and a pledge is unnecessary to pursuing our mission," she said.
Some organizations still recite the pledge. Glanckopf said the Woman's Club of Palo Alto, of which she is a member, still says the pledge at its monthly meetings and recites its "collect," a prayer dating to 1904 asking God to keep members from prejudice and judgment and to strive for unity and a kind heart.
Larry Gibbs, Palo Alto Elks Lodge exalted ruler, said its members recite the pledge at all meetings and member events.
"The flag is an integral part of the Elks organization. The flag's been a mainstay since the early 20th century. Certainly, one of our basic tenets is honoring the flag and we do have a Flag Day celebration. One of our main charity causes is for veterans, so it goes along with that," he said.
Debra LaVergne, secretary of the International Order of Odd Fellows and Rebekah Assembly, said the Odd Fellows requires its members to express fidelity to the nation.
"The Pledge of Allegiance is part of an expression of being loyal to your country," she said.
Odd Fellow members also recite "The Lord's Prayer." The Christian practice is a current topic of discussion in the parent organization, however.
"The issue is the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs are nonsectarian. As we get more Jewish and non-Christian members, the question is: Are we excluding new members we'd want to have?" she said.
School boards, PTA and city councils are split on the tradition
When it comes to government groups, most — including the Menlo Park and Mountain View city councils and Santa Clara County boards — do say the pledge, according to their meeting minutes. But not Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.
"Not saying the pledge at our meetings does make us unusual among California school boards," said Todd Collins, vice president of the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education, in an email. "I don't recall any public discussion about it. My knowledge goes back about 20 years, and it was never a part of the meeting during this time."
Jade Chao, president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, said the group's written rules call for the Pledge of Allegiance, but she's never heard it said during her tenure.
"We are not sure why we do or why we do not," she said in an email.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Lanie Wheeler said she doesn't recall the council reciting the pledge when she was there in the 1990s, and the council does not recite the pledge to this day.
East Palo Alto's City Council has never said the pledge since the city's 1983 incorporation, City Clerk Walfred Solorzano said, and he could not find any written policy on it.
Similarly, the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education doesn't follow the tradition, nor does Menlo Park's, but the Mountain View and Los Altos boards are among those that do, according to meeting minutes and staff.
As traditional as the Pledge of Allegiance appears to be, the framers of the U.S. Constitution did not specify a pledge or motto, noted Jack David Eller in his book "Inventing American Tradition."
Taking the oath came out of the country's war traumas and the "perceived menace of immigration and socialism," he said.
The first iteration of the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, in 1892. Congress adopted the pledge in 1942 during World War II and amended it in 1954 to include the words "under God" at the height of the Cold War, according to Eller.
The original pledge began with a military salute with the arm outstretched toward the flag. It later combined the hand over the heart and the salute, but that was officially changed in World War II because the outstretched arm resembled the Nazi salute, according to the Independence Hall Association.