When the principal's voice came over the intercom Thursday morning, the fourth-graders in Carrie Carlson's south Sacramento classroom popped out of their seats, placed their right hands over their hearts and recited the familiar -- and suddenly controversial -- refrain:
"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," they chanted in practiced, perfect unison.
About the same time, the fourth-graders in Laurie Beyer's Rio Linda classroom sat in a circle on the floor, legs tucked beneath them, hands fidgeting with pencils, notebooks or each other. When Beyer asked them to stand, they also jumped up and repeated the same 31 words, their voices rising on the words "under God."
Students around Sacramento found their morning ritual at the center of an emotional national debate after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional.
Ruling on a case filed against the Elk Grove Unified School District, the federal appeals court said the pledge's "under God" phrase violates the separation of church and state and should be banned from classrooms in the Western states covered by court.
As the ruling elicited overwhelming reaction across the country, Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, who wrote the 2-1 opinion, stayed his own decision Thursday, preventing it from taking effect until the full appeals court decides if it wants to change course.
Locally, educators explained that California law requires public schools to conduct "appropriate patriotic exercises" daily, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is the most common way to meet that goal.
In Elk Grove Unified, every elementary school asks students to recite the pledge, but children are not forced to participate. The district's middle and high schools have more flexibility, meeting the requirement for patriotism in different ways, such as reading a passage from historical documents or talking about American heroes.
But for elementary students not only in Elk Grove but nationwide, most know the routine of the pledge even before they can spell or add or realize they should be saying "indivisible" instead of "invisible."
"It's something they do every day that they may be asked to change," said Mike Gulden, principal of Elk Grove Unified's Barbara Comstock Morse Elementary School.
Carrie Carlson, a Morse Elementary teacher, said the meaning and ritual of the pledge reinforce values of citizenship, honesty, friendship and acceptance.
"It unites our class. It's a way to start our day," she said. "It's an appreciation for everything we have. It's a thank-you and a pledge to uphold the standards of the United States."
Carlson told her students Thursday that, as always, they are free to not say the pledge. None opted out, but she has had students stay seated and silent in the past.
After her students finished the pledge, they spent about 20 minutes sharing thoughts about its relevance.
"It makes me feel like a true American. I love this country, so I salute it every day," said Kashia Moua, 9.
"It's like we're telling God we love him," said Christopher Knight, 9.
Though it isn't the school attended by the child whose atheist father filed the lawsuit, Morse Elementary was the site of a district press conference attended by media from across the nation. District officials announced they will take whatever legal action is necessary to defend the pledge.
"We will fight it as hard and as long as it takes," said Superintendent David Gordon.
He said the district has been deluged with supportive phone calls and e-mails.
Another positive result of the ruling is the invaluable lesson it's providing in democracy, he said.
"We fight in the courts and not in the streets," Gordon said.
State schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin also held a press conference Thursday, saying schools should stay the course.
"I do expect the Supreme Court to allow us to say, 'under God,' " Eastin said. "While I do respect those who are uncomfortable saying 'under God,' I really do believe most Americans believe it is appropriate."
At Rio Linda's Dry Creek Elementary School, the pledge was the topic of a long discussion for Laurie Beyer's students.
Beyer set aside time to use the court ruling as a learning experience. Her students discussed their interpretations of the pledge, freedom of religion and what the flag and pledge signify.
They then turned to their journals for reflection. Their prompt? "What it means to be an American."
They then reconvened to read what they had written.
"The flag is special to me because my grandpa was in the war. The pledge is special to me, so don't take that away from me, please," Katie Bell, 9, read from her spiral notebook.
Classmate Riley Curd, 9, had similar thoughts.
"I will pledge to the flag as long as I live," he said.
Beyer emphasized to her students that although they may feel the pledge should be left alone, dissent and protest are key to what it means to be American.
"Sometimes these controversies aren't a bad thing because they make us think about what we want and appreciate what we have," she said.
The Bee's Sandy Louey can be reached at (916) 321-1048 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Bee staff writer Elizabeth Hume contributed to this report.