To the shock of its sponsor, a bill that would require public school students to recite a passage from the Declaration of Independence has been shelved under pressure and likely is finished for the session.
“I am just astonished,” said Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, and author of the legislation, which she tabled Wednesday night amid controversy.
The issue is sensitive, Rep. Patricia Smith told Hodges during debate late Wednesday night, because some African-Americans are still alive who, in order to vote, had to take literacy tests, which included reciting from memory tracts from the Declaration of Independence. Literacy tests were banned by Congress in 1970, largely because they had been used to exclude African-Americans from casting ballots.
A deluge of amendments were offered.
Hodges’ decision to shelve her bill means legislation already facing huge hurdles is now up against near insurmountable odds. The regular session ends June 6.
The proposal, House Bill 1035, won approval in the House Education Committee without opposition.
It would require students in grades four, five and six to recite a portion of the historic document in the first class of each day.
Hodges said the change is needed amid signs that lots of people have little knowledge of government and how it came about.
“The Declaration of Independence is the cornerstone of our republic,” Hodges said. “The American mind is expressed in those documents.”
But some lawmakers said it would be a mistake to pick just one historic document for students to memorize.
Rep. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, prepared an amendment that would require students to recite a portion of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Price noted that King’s speech is one of the most famous in U.S. history.
“It still has grown and grown and grown,” Price said. “It is repeated today by everybody.”
Price said the civil rights leader’s remarks especially resonate with African-Americans and the struggles to overcome slavery and the denial of voting rights.
“We fought a long way to get where we are today,” he said. “And I think Dr. King’s speech really personifies what has happened.”
Smith, D-Baton Rouge, prepared an amendment that would require students to recite a portion of the Declaration of Sentiments from the Women’s Rights Conference in Seneca Falls in 1848.
Smith said that gathering featured talk of women’s voting rights and other topics worth remembering.
“She (Hodges) just chose something that she felt was adequate,” Smith said. “But there was so much more that could have been looked at.”
Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, had an amendment that would require students to recite the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the post-Civil War addition that said everyone born or naturalized in the U.S., including African-Americans, were citizens of the nation.
Hodges called the amendments “poison pills” aimed at killing her bill. “It was Ed Price, Barbara Norton and Pat Smith,” she said.
Price denied that.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
While the bill sailed through the House Education Committee, some members were uneasy with it.
House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, a member of the committee, noted then that the Declaration of Independence was written at a time when men, women and African-Americans were not considered equal.
Critics also said the requirement could spark lawsuits.
Hodges said she would support an opt out clause.
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