SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A controversy is brewing in South Portland over the Pledge of Allegiance. Senior class leaders at South Portland High School want their classmates to know that saying the pledge is optional. But while Maine state law is on their side, a school policy committee is not.

South Portland Senior Class President Lily SanGiovanni’s fight to make sure students know reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is optional started when she noticed something.

“Teachers or substitutes were kind of making students feel uncomfortable if they, perhaps, chose not to,” she said.

So she did some research and found state law on her side, which says, “Every student in a Maine public school has the opportunity to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but no student shall be forced to say it.”

Principal Ryan Caron partially agreed, telling CBS 13, “They should not be made to feel that they’ve done something wrong.”

But Caron said a school committee voted down the students’ proposal to tell students the pledge is optional.

“For the high school, it is not an issue of wanting to force students to say the pledge or disagreeing with these girls’ opinions,” he said. “It is there is a change process in place.”

So SanGiovanni decided last month to make her own change. As she made the announcements over the intercom, she started saying each morning, “Would you please rise and join me for the Pledge of Allegiance — if you’d like to.”

“We really want students to know faculty can’t force you to do anything,” she said. “We really want to educate our fellow students and let them choose for themselves.”

But what she and her fellow class officers didn’t expect was the backlash from the community.

Members of the public criticized the students, posting comments online like, “Our flag is a symbol of freedom — if you can’t respect that then leave” or, “If you choose not to say the pledge, don’t consider yourself an American and leave.”

Senior Class Vice President Morrigan Turner said, “There were some people saying we should go to Syria or Russia or Afghanistan and that will change us. It’s really hard to hear that coming from your community.”

But not everyone was against them. One supporter went online to write, “How is it ‘freeing’ to force someone to ‘stand and deliver’ the pledge if they don’t want to?”

Senior Class Secretary Gaby Ferrell said future students need to know “it’s an option and it’s their choice to make, whether they want to pledge their allegiance.”

SanGiovanni is no longer allowed to tell students reciting the pledge is optional. But she says she got her message across.

The principal said he is making sure teachers know that as well. Students are now calling for a policy change to make sure students coming into the high school know reciting the pledge is optional.