N.J. Assembly: Public school students must recite patriotic passage

Monday, June 14, 1999

The New Jersey Assembly has passed a bill requiring all public school students to recite the “all men are created equal” passage of the Declaration of Independence every day along with the Pledge of Allegiance.

The measure passed 50-16 on June 10 and goes next to the Senate.

According to the proposed law, schoolchildren would recite: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

But some critics question the measure's constitutionality, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 50 years ago that children have a right not to participate in patriotic programs at school.

In the 1943 decision in Barnette v. West Virginia State Board of Education, the court said Jehovah's Witnesses schoolchildren in West Virginia did not have to salute the flag. For school officials to require students to do so would violate their First Amendment rights.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” wrote Justice Robert Jackson.

New Jersey state law currently requires students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. That law allows students to forgo the recitation but requires them “to show full respect of the flag while the pledge is being given by merely standing at attention.”

The proposed law includes no exceptions.

“These two sentences are the basis of everything that America has become,” said bill sponsor Assemblyman Michael Carroll, R-Morristown. “Kids come away from school not really understanding what it is that makes America special, what it is that the Revolution was fought for. And a little symbolism never hurt anyone.”

Lawmakers who oppose the measure say the Declaration of Independence reflects colonial values that excluded minorities and women. And some suggest changing “all men” to “all people.”

Kevin Keenan, acting executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, says his group doesn't have content concerns about the Declaration of Independence. But the group does have problems with officials forcing students to recite patriotic passages against their will.

“At issue here along with a right to free speech is the right not to speak,” Keenan said. “We would become involved if there was compelled speech.”

The New Jersey Education Association, which represents most of the state's public school teachers, opposes the bill not only because of time constraints in the school day, but because it says the Declaration of Independence is taught thoroughly in the public school curriculum.

The state curriculum standards require that students show competence in discussing key democratic principles by the end of fourth grade. Students must be able to identify the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and be able to explain how the two documents apply to U.S. citizens.

The coursework also requires students to be able to discuss several symbols of American democracy including the U.S. flag and the Statue of Liberty.

“Our feeling is that these are good and adequate expectations of students,” said Lynn Maher, spokeswoman for the teachers' group. “In addition to that, we question the role that recitation would play for students in the learning process. We believe that through discussion students come to understand the foundation upon which this country was built and the importance of citizenship.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.