Social Studies

Legislators Consider Measures To Promote ‘Religious Heritage’

By Mark Walsh — March 05, 1997 4 min read

Come next fall, students in California will be required to read the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and George Washington’s farewell address.

In Utah, a law passed last year guarantees that public schools may display those documents in classrooms and other areas and provides that “there shall be no content-based censorship of American history and heritage documents ... due to their religious and/or cultural nature.”

Never mind that California, Utah, and most other states already require students to learn U.S. history.

So-called “American heritage” measures are popping up across the country.

Conservative lawmakers in at least six states contend that teachers have been prohibited from making reference to the religious underpinnings of such basic historical documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

“To understand the foundation of this country, you have to understand its religious heritage,” said Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth of Texas, a Republican who has introduced two bills that would encourage the teaching and display of historical documents.

Like the Utah law, Ms. Wohlgemuth’s bill would prohibit school officials from “censoring” any religious content from such documents as the Mayflower Compact, the 1620 political covenant signed by the men on the ship that carried the Pilgrims to America.

“Just because it contains the word ‘religion’ or ‘God’ should not exclude it being taught in our schools,” she said.

Some educators and advocates of strict church-state separation have taken to opposing the seemingly innocuous measures.

“It’s obvious you can teach about these documents,” said Joseph L. Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based group. He added that proponents “see this as a backdoor way to get religious instruction back into the schools.”

Illinois Debate

Supporters say they are not out to promote a particular religion. They contend the measures spotlight instructional goals that may get lost in the debate over what belongs in the history curriculum.

“Oftentimes legislation is used as an educational tool,” said GOP Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, who co-sponsored an American-heritage bill last year.

The Illinois measure promoted the teaching and display not only of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but also of the national anthem and opinions of the U.S. and Illinois supreme courts.

It sailed through the legislature last year, but then ran into trouble with Gov. Jim Edgar, a moderate Republican.

The governor expressed support for teaching the religious elements of historical documents, but he wanted to be sure local school boards would maintain the power to prevent the materials from being used in a way that would advance religion. He used his amendatory veto to add safeguards to the bill that infuriated its supporters.

The legislature never voted on the amended version, and the bill died.

The new California law does not mention censorship of religious references, nor does it mention displaying the religious documents. However, it does mandate that all students “read and be taught all of” six core documents.

Heavy Reading

Most of those, such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, are relatively short.

But some observers have wondered whether lawmakers really intended to require high school students to read all 85 essays that make up the Federalist Papers, which were written in support of the U.S. Constitution by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.

Such legislative mandates bother some curriculum experts.

“Legislators are noted for trying to force schools to deal with specific little pet projects,” said Pat Nickell, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies and the director of curriculum for the Fayette County, Ky., schools.

“I don’t think it is up to state legislators to say which documents we should teach,” Ms. Nickell said. “That is taking away from the art of teaching.”

Besides the effort in Texas, American-heritage bills have been introduced this year in Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington.

The End of History

By far the most colorful debate on the measure occurred in Colorado last month.

Sen. Charles Duke, a conservative Republican, sponsored a bill that called for the historical documents to be taught “in the light most favorable to their author.”

When the measure reached the Senate floor, opponents tried an unusual tack to defeat it.

They proposed adding to Sen. Duke’s list a variety of other requirements likely to appeal to Democrats and liberals, such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, discussion of the origins of the women’s movement, and required readings of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in Roe v. Wade, on abortion rights, and Miranda v. Arizona, on the rights of criminal suspects.

Senators kept adding to the list “with the idea that something eventually would offend Sen. Duke,” said Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association.

After the measure was defeated by a vote of 19-15, Sen. Duke denounced the opponents as “Marxist-Leninists.”

Last week, he said that while the opponents’ stated position was that they did not want to violate school boards’ control of the curriculum, that wasn’t the sole purpose. “Their real position is they don’t support the Constitution,” Mr. Duke said.

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