Two Arizona lawmakers are stirring Constitutional debate and threats of legal action after introducing bills that would require the state's students to express love of country under God.
House Bill 2467, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Bob Thorpe, would require all public high school seniors to take an oath to "support and defend" the U.S. Constitution and proclaim, "so help me god." A second proposal, House Bill 2284 sponsored by Republican state Rep. Steve Smith, would require all public 1-12 students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The oath, as proposed by Thorpe, reads:
I, _______, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge these duties; So help me God.
While critics argue that Thorpe's bill violates the Constitution by requiring a religious declaration to graduate from high school, the lawmaker asserts the bill's legality. The bill, as written, also doesn't outline exemptions for students who are atheist or of other faiths from the requirement. Still, Thorpe says he is considering amending the proposal to make the oath optional to avoid making students or parents uncomfortable, though he is still a strong conceptual proponent of the bill, The Arizona Republic reports.
"Constitutional oaths are common for elected officials and government employees, including the governor, the Legislature and members of our law enforcement and our military," he told The Republic. "It is my hope that if Arizona students are given the opportunity to also take a simple, Constitutional oath, that this will inspire them to learn more about our Constitutional form of government and the rich history of our nation and founding."
Public school students in Arizona currently must allow time for the Pledge each day, but students are permitted to choose whether they wish to take part. Smith's proposal strikes the words "those students who wish," thus removing the option, and adding a provision for exemption if a student's parent specifically requests their child be excused from recitation.
But both bills could open the floodgates to a slew of lawsuits. Alessandra Soler, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, says if taken to court, the proposals could be deemed violations of students' rights to free speech.
"Students have a right to free speech, a right to stay silent, a right to go to school," Soler told Current, the media network co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. "It's cynical and ironic that they are promoting allegiance to the Constitution by requiring an oath in the face of crumbling schools and dwindling education funds. Rather than make increases to budgets, they're assuming an oath will teach students about the Constitution."
Smith's proposal is one of several that have affected schools across the country. The Nebraska Board of Education unanimously voted last August to require the state's public schools to set time aside every day for the Pledge of Allegiance in grades K-12. Students are, however, allowed to stand or sit quietly if they choose not to participate.
But last summer, New Jersey high school student Chelsea Stanton won an extensive battle with her school, which was repeatedly punishing her for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Stanton, an atheist, said she "couldn't bring herself to recite [the Pledge] anymore" because of the words, "under God."
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