Monday, January 21, 2002

Fight brews over recital bill

Declaration would be part of students' day

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — When in the course of legislative events, religion mixes with public education, it becomes self-evident that a controversy has been declared. But even as lawmakers and civil libertarians prepare to battle over a bill requiring the daily classroom recital of a portion of the Declaration of Independence, Northern Kentucky's school superintendents are open to the idea.

        “I can't speak for our board but I don't have a problem with it,” said Newport Independent Schools Superintendent Dan Sullivan. “We're even thinking about hanging "In God We Trust' posters in every classroom.

  Here is the Declaration of Independence passage Kentucky students in grades 3-12 would recite daily under legislation pending in the Kentucky General Assembly:
  “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.”
        “We certainly find an awful lot of things to bang on,” he said. “But I don't care what color you are, what faith ... there is a very important message in the Declaration of Independence.”

        Kentucky public school students in grades 3-12 would each day recite a passage from the Declaration of Independence under a bill filed in the state General Assembly by Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas.

        Inspired by the Sept. 11 events, Mr. Fischer said he filed the bill so students could gain a better appreciation of the virtues, history, importance and patriotism of the historic document.

        “I think it is appropriate to at least have children understand the reasons we defend our country,” Mr. Fischer said.

        But because the 55-word passage Mr. Fischer wants recited includes a reference to God, the Kentucky American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has raised concerns about religious freedoms and might stage a legal fight if the legislation is


        There is also opposition from some members of the General Assembly, who say Mr. Fischer wants to wave the Bible and not the flag in Kentucky classrooms — a charge Mr. Fischer has staunchly denied.

        “This is an example of yet another ... thinly veiled attempt, another step further in trying to get God, the Ten Commandments and religion in the classroom,” said Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington.

        “It's hard to oppose those wonderful documents, but this is a decision that needs to be made” on the local level by individual schools, said Ms. Stein, who sits on the House Education Committee that will hear Mr. Fischer's bill.

        Five other states — Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey and New York — have considered similar legislation, but all those bills failed, according to the ACLU.

        Florida most recently tried it late last year, but the measure did not pass. Mr. Fischer said he based his bill on the Florida legislation.

        Even if the ACLU picks a legal fight with Kentucky, the organization probably won't win, according to constitutional law expert Howard C. Eglit.

        “It's a real close question, but I think if it were challenged in court the challenge would be rejected,” said Mr. Eglit, who teaches at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

        “While there is a reference to God, this is part of the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “I consider myself a civil libertarian, but I do not see this as crossing the line.”

        Neither does Larry Stinson, superintendent of the Fort Thomas Independent Schools.

        “My only concern would be, teachers already have more than they can do,” he said, “but I support the spirt of what (Mr. Fischer) is trying to do.

        “More patriotism for our students is something that to me is very positive. After all, "In God We Trust' is the motto of our country ... and the Declaration of Independence is how we got started,” he said.

        Jack Moreland, superintendent of the Covington Independent Schools, said he would support it as long as it was in conjunction with an overall civics or history curriculum.

        “I don't see anything wrong with school districts supporting patriotic types of things,” Mr. Moreland said. “But, at the same time, to pass legislation having everybody doing it becomes problematic.”

        James Molley, superintendent of the Erlanger-Elsmere Independent Schools, said he also harbors concerns about students reciting the passage every day because so much other work has to be done in classrooms.

        “But if the ACLU is against it, I'm for it,” Mr. Molley said.

        “When I look around at where we are in this country, you can see values are not being stressed like they were in the past. So the responsibility of the school becomes greater and greater to teach kids various things and information about their country.”

        The bill is awaiting an Education Committee hearing. It must pass the committee to be considered by the full House.


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