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Hazards of the Heritage Amendment

There is plenty of serious work for the Legislature to do, but that would be hard to believe if one tuned in only to the brouhaha over the so-called "American Heritage" amendment.

To the bill raising high school graduation standards, conservative legislators have added language saying that school boards "may allow" any teacher to read or post "any excerpt or portion" of certain specified historical material including the national motto, national anthem, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact and decisions of the Supreme Court. The national motto is, of course, "In God we trust."

Having said that school boards "may" adopt this policy, the bill then requires that a copy of the legislation be sent to each teacher. What ever became of the Legislature's promise to stopmicromanaging the schools?

The House of Representatives had a sharp fight over the heritage amendment last week, reflecting opponents' suspicions that it's a sneak play by the Christian Coalition to get religion into the classroom now that the school prayer amendment, which got the bill vetoed last year, is no longer being considered. The heritage amendment was in last year's bill too, but took a back seat to the prayer debate.

"I understood last year that this was the most dangerous part, not school prayer," insists Rep. Shirley Brown, D-Sarasota, who voted against the bill.

John Dowless, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, blames the uproar on Democrats who "are upset that they are the minority party and are using every possible issue to try to marginalize the leadership."

There would be no fuss, I am sure, if it weren't for the coalition's sponsorship. But without them the amendment wouldn't even be in the bill to begin with. Thus the real question: Why?

Dowless and Brown agree on one thing: No Florida teacher has ever gotten in trouble for reading the Constitution, Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights, or for posting them in the classroom.

But Dowless goes on to argue that teachers need some incentive to make up for what nervous publishers have written out of too many texts: the substantial role of religion in the history of the United States. When teachers try to compensate, Dowless claims, some nervous principals are apt to tell them to stick to the book.

"A lot of widely published books say the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians," he complains.

I have read some of those texts for myself. It is possible, unfortunately, for a student to grow up knowing almost nothing of how much America's history owes to religious persecutions in other lands. That lack of knowledge, in turn, breeds much of the intolerance that festers even here. One can't properly appreciate the First Amendment in ignorance of such historical imperatives as Europe's religious wars, the state monopoly of the Church of England or the Russian pogroms and forced conscriptions that sent so many Jews to these shores.

But the Heritage Amendment is at best a superficial palliative for the pureed curriculum. It is no substitute at all for the serious, objective study of comparative religion which has been called for by the Supreme Court, the president and virtually every major religious group, but which is rarely offered.

At worst, the Heritage Amendment could turn out to be what Brown and some other legislators fear: a pretext for teachers to engage in some suspicious selectivity. A teacher who posted only the national motto would be doing just that. And which of thousands of Supreme Court decisions to post? Its modern pronouncements on the separation of church and state? Or the one 1892 decision _ often cited by the religious right these days _ in which the Supreme Court remarked in passing that this is "emphatically a Christian nation"?

Ironically, the Heritage Amendment as compromised with opponents last week excludes by omission such other documents as the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by George Washington and ratified by the Senate under John Adams, which declared, "the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion . . ."

The House compromise also declares that material must not be selected "to advance a particular religious, political or sectarian purpose." There couldn't be many teachers who would do that anyway, but who will police the few who might, and what cost?

Whether harmful or harmless, the issue has nothing demonstrable to do with graduation standards. Is someone betting the governor won't veto the bill two years in row? Or is someone daring him to do just that.