Nebraska's Defender of the Downtrodden is back.
That's not quite an official title but it's a widely recognized one. State Senator Ernie Chambers has been defending downtrodden Nebraskans against racism, sexism, homophobia, the death penalty, and government establishment of religion since he was elected to the legislature in 1970.
Then known as an outspoken Omaha civil rights activist, Chambers was perceived in the legislature and throughout the state as an angry and dangerous young black man. And for defenders of the status quo he was certainly that. But his agenda turned out to be far broader than anyone expected.
After 38 years of defending the downtrodden, Chambers was forced out of the legislature after the 2008 session by newly established term limits. Four years later, however, he became eligible to run again and was re-elected to his old seat. As of January 2013, Ernie is back.
And what's on his mind now? In 2012 the Nebraska legislature declined to pass a bill requiring a daily pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag in all public elementary and secondary schools. The State Board of Education responded by passing a new rule requiring that students be led in such a pledge.
Even among those who oppose mandatory pledges, many consider this a relatively minor matter. But Chambers is a man who appreciates children and takes them seriously. His conception of the downtrodden includes students coerced into going along with a pledge they don't wish to say in order to avoid bullying from peers for their nonconformity.
Upon his return to the legislature, Senator Chambers introduced a bill to ban the State Board from requiring pledges of allegiance. On March 18, he presented and defended his bill before the legislature's education committee. The United States, he argued, is not a nation of liberty and justice for all, and no one should be compelled to say that it is.
The first testimony in support of the bill came from patriotic atheists. They would happily join the pledge, they said, if it didn't claim that the United States exists "under God."
Then it was my turn. Supporting the bill as a Board member of both ACLU Nebraska and the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska, I sought to draw the committee's attention to the general issue of compulsory pledges.
Imagine Nebraska in 2030. There is still a State Board of Education, I proposed, but the political tides have turned. The Board decides to replace the traditional pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States with the following:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United Nations (of earth), and to the organization for which it stands, one world, green forever, indivisible, with liberty and justice for oppressed people everywhere.
Two centuries later there is still a State of Nebraska with a State Board of Education. Updating to the 23rd century, the State Board replaces the United Nations pledge with this:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United Federation of Planets, and to the confederation for which it stands, one galaxy, stars abounding, vast invisible, seeking out new life and new civilizations.
Of course there are many more possible pledges to many more flags, objects, groups, causes, and ideals. We may differ, and so may those who follow us, as to which pledge we like best. But we should all agree, I suggested to the committee, that we don't want the State Board of Education requiring that all students be led in any of them.
Nebraska students must learn about many things, including the United States and its flag. But learning about something is not the same thing as pledging allegiance to it. Leading children in oaths and pledges, I argued, is indoctrination, not education.
The State Board of Education should have no power to require that students be led in oaths or pledges of any sort to anyone or anything. I asked the committee to keep in mind the State Board of the future that wants all students led in a pledge of allegiance to the United Nations or the United Federation of Planets.
The only opposition came from veterans who supported the State Board's mandate. Students, they maintained, should pledge their allegiance to the flag and nation for which so many fought and died.
It remains to be seen what the education committee will do. But they can be sure Senator Chambers is watching.