Revamp of Americanism law advances after controversy about ‘rag’ comment

Revamp of Americanism law advances after controversy about ‘rag’ comment
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers advanced a bill updating the state’s Americanism law Tuesday after ending a filibuster in which Omaha State Sen. Ernie Chambers called the American flag “a rag.”

Legislative Bill 399, introduced by Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, cleared the first of three rounds of consideration on a 42-3 vote.

The vote to advance came after lawmakers voted by the same margin for a debate-ending cloture motion. Chambers was joined in dissent by Sens. Megan Hunt and Justin Wayne, both of Omaha.

The bill would revamp a state law dealing with civics educationand American government that dates to 1949. The changes are aimed at modernizing language adopted at a time when Americans were concerned about the spread of communism and the country had just finished a war with the Nazis.

The proposal comes as the State Board of Education is working to update social studies standards, which include civics education.

Among other changes, LB 399 would replace the term “Americanism” with the more neutral “American civics.” It also would repeal a provision under which teachers and administrators could be charged with a misdemeanor for failing to carry out the law.

It would repeal language that calls for “the love of liberty, justice, democracy and America” to be “instilled in the hearts and minds” of students. In its place, the bill would require that students be “given the opportunity to become competent, responsible, patriotic and civil citizens.”

LB 399 would leave in place requirements for students to learn about American heroes, memorize patriotic songs and develop respect for the American flag. Schools also would have to hold “appropriate patriotic exercises” for selected holidays.

Chambers vehemently objected to the bill, calling it a propaganda piece.

During the six-hour debate, he talked at length about America’s history of slavery, violence and discrimination. He said people called American heroes, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders. The original U.S. Constitution was written to accommodate slavery.

He also pointed to episodes of forced patriotism, such as a sixth-grade student in Florida who was arrested earlier this month after arguing with a teacher over his refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Last week, Chambers provoked backlash when he referred to the American flag as “a rag.” The comments drew national attention and prompted Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a decorated veteran, to respond with an impassioned speech about what he said the flag means to most people who have served in the military.

“It rips our heart out to hear someone say that they refer to the flag as a rag,” Brewer said. “It’s hard to refer to the flag as a rag because you have to fold it, and you have to give it to the parents” of soldiers who die.

On Tuesday, Chambers, who also served in the military, refused to back away from his comments.

“Every hateful thing that was done to black people was done under the aegis of that rag,” he said, adding, “You’re more upset by what’s said about that rag than about the savaging of the Constitution.”

Others argued that “the idea of America” is worth teaching to students, along with the country’s dark side. Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington said students should learn about the flaws of historical leaders, as well as their accomplishments.

“That is what I pledge my allegiance to, to the hope of something we might call ‘America-to-come,’ ” she said.

Slama cited several studies showing the lack of knowledge about civics and government among Americans of all ages to make the case for increased emphasis on civics education.

While previous Americanism bills foundered over a proposal to require that public schools give students the same civics test that immigrants take for citizenship, Slama reached a compromise that allowed the bill to advance unanimously out of the Education Committee.

Under the compromise, schools could choose from among three options: giving the naturalization test, having students go to a government meeting followed by a paper or project, or doing a project or paper and class presentation about a person or events commemorated by selected holidays named in the bill.

Those holidays include the birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., along with Native American Heritage Day, Constitution Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving Day.