To inculcate democratic values in the public school students of New Jersey, the state's Assembly has decreed -- by a vote of 50 to 16 -- that every day, all students must recite not only the Pledge of Allegiance but also this section of the Declaration of Independence:
"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."
A student refusing, in conscience, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, can be excused under a U.S. Supreme Court decision, but this bill has no conscientious exceptions for the Declaration of Independence.
The bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Michael Carroll (R-Morristown), who explained: "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 anybody."
In reporting this lesson in Americanism, Phillip Taylor of the First Amendment Center's weekly, Legal Watch, quoted quite another definition of what the Revolution was fought for.
Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, writing for a majority of the court, emphasized in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943):
"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."
Since New Jersey's schoolchildren are Americans, that ruling should protect any student who does not wish to recite, in chorus, from the Declaration of Independence.
Suppose a student believes that while those resounding words exemplify the ideal of the Revolution, they did not apply, at the time they were written, to slaves and women. Therefore, that student would refuse to stand for the Declaration of Independence -- just as other students do not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance because they believe the phrase "liberty and justice for all" does not apply to all Americans.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey will defend such dissenters if the bill passes the state Senate and is signed by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who is running for the U.S. Senate.
Kevin Keenan, acting executive director of the New Jersey affiliate, agrees with Justice Jackson that students should not be compelled to recite patriotic passages against their consciences. "Along with the right to free speech," he says, "is the right not to speak."
But the ACLU has no objection to the content of that section of the Declaration of Independence. I do. Aside from the First Amendment freedom not to be forced to adhere to "orthodox nationalism," there is that passage's claim that our "unalienable rights" come from the "Creator."
There are atheist students in the public schools. I have met some. If the bill becomes law, there will be lawsuits, and the ACLU will once again be accused of un-Americanism by those, including legislators, who badly need a remedial course in the history of the nation, including its Constitution.
The New Jersey Education Association opposes the Assembly's bill because understanding of the Declaration, along with the Constitution, is already required of students by the end of the fourth grade.
But the students also should know these words from Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration, accusing King George III of "violating the most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people . . . captivating and carrying them into slavery . . . or to incur a miserable death in their transportation thither."
This was edited out so as not to offend the South.
In New Jersey, by the way, while students are allowed to refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag, they nonetheless must, by present state law, stand silently at attention "to show full respect for the flag."
Yet in 1977, a federal judge in Newark overturned the "compulsory standing" law because it compelled a conscientious resister to symbolically affirm a belief he or she did not hold. The state of New Jersey, therefore, is already in contempt of the First Amendment, even before the compelled recitation of the Declaration of Independence becomes law.