No, Arizona is Not Making it Illegal for Atheists to Graduate High School

No, Arizona is Not Making it Illegal for Atheists to Graduate High School

OK, everyone, let’s just take a deep breath and relax. I’ve heard from several alarmed people that Republicans in Arizona want to withhold high school diplomas from atheists by forcing them to take the following pledge:

I, _______, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge these duties; So help me God.

The relevant part causing the palpitations, apparently, is the last phrase: “So help me God.” If you take a look at the bill over on LegiScan, here’s the top comment:

This is the most disgusting violation of the separation of church and state I have ever heard of!

Look, before we go any further, let me state outright that this is a stupid, stupid bill. It is exactly as stupid as the pledge American schoolchildren have been reciting for many decades now:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I typed that out of memory because I had to say it every weekday morning for 12 years of my life. The Arizona bill appears to come from the same jingoistic, self-conscious mindset as the pledge of allegiance, and both should be tossed in the trashcan immediately. Like the Pledge of Allegiance, there’s no way this oath would be able to be enforced. But, it has nothing to do with atheism, despite the overblown headlines.

For a start, “so help me God” is a common oath that, over the centuries, has become fairly irrelevant and is now said as a matter of custom more than a serious appeal to an all-powerful deity. Even so, most oaths in the US allow a person to skip it. Some states, though, still require “so help me God” in their oaths, so we could have equally fear-mongering headlines like Atheists Barred from Office in Massachusetts, despite the fact that the second an atheist complained about it, the oath would be dropped.

Secondly, even the bill’s sponsor makes it clear this isn’t about religion:

As written, the bill does not exempt atheist students or those of different faiths from the requirement, though Thorpe has pledged to amend the measure. “In that we had a tight deadline for dropping our bills, I was not able to update the language,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Arizona Republic. “Even though I want to encourage all of our students to understand and respect our Constitution and constitutional form of government, I do not want to create a requirement that students or parents may feel uncomfortable with.”

So yes, it’s a stupid bill proposed by a stupid man, but this isn’t persecution of atheists.

Avatar of Rebecca Watson
Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

38 Comments

  1. Avatar of Noadi

    I’m going to differ with you on this. It’s much different than the pledge of allegiance because it is not a graduation requirement. This person is trying to make an oath in god’s name a requirement for highschool graduation and that is blatantly unconstitutional. The same oath is the one used for the military and civil service but with two differences: one is that you do not have to say “so help me god” (actually I don’t think it’s even administered using that phrase, the person taking the oath has to add it and many do) and you can replace “swear” with “affirm”. Saying that “So help me god” is just a formality now is just wrong, just because most people do say it doesn’t mean it’s lost it’s meaning, just that most people do believe in god.

    • Avatar of Rebecca Watson

      Hm, I don’t actually see where you’re differing with me – it seems more as though you’re just not aware that in some states students are required to say the pledge of allegiance. However, this can be and has been challenged, exactly as this bill would be challenged were it to pass as is (which it won’t).

      • Avatar of Rebecca Watson

        (And regarding the phrase becoming secularized, I’ll accept that as a difference of opinion. When I was a Christian I said “so help me God” and it didn’t even occur to me that the God I believed in had anything to do with it. But I do acknowledge in my post that it’s religious enough still that it’s unconstitutional.)

        • Avatar of delphi_ote

          I’m with Rebecca on this. Even among Christians I’ve known, “So help me God” is basically secular. The church I attended before becoming an atheist certainly would consider swearing in God’s name a sin (i.e. violating two commandments in one go.) If I said “I swear to God I will give you the money,” that would’ve been worse than dropping an F-bomb.

          But nobody at that church had any problem with “so help me God.” It was just considered serious and formal language.

          • Avatar of marilove

            These politicians did not do this for secular reasons. I promise you.

            I love my state, but I loathe many of our politicians. The large majority are assholes.

        • Avatar of marilove

          As an Arizona native and as a resident of Phoenix for 12+ years now, I can assure you that these people are fucking nutter butters, and these people DO NOT in any way, shape, or form find “so help me God” to be secular. I assure you. These are the type of Republicans who believe that 26 children died at Newtown because there isn’t enough God in the schools.

          Sure, maybe you find it Secular and that is fine — but these people DO NOT.

          • Avatar of Grand Lunar

            I haven’t heard of that comment yet about god in school. But then, I don’t watch enough local news.

          • Avatar of marilove

            This wasn’t just locally!

          • Avatar of delphi_ote

            Proof by “Trust me, I live here”? You’re a better thinker and arguer than that, marilove.

          • Avatar of marilove

            for fucks’s ake, delphi_ote? Really? Your condensation is noted.

            This is Arizona. Do I REALLY need to provide proof that most (Republican) politicians here have a God Complex? And that they are obsessed with the concept of God and of God being included in all things political and state related, including education?

            This claim is not grandiose or unusual. There is no need to provide proof.

            But if you need it, just google Jan Brewer. That’s all the information you need.

            And, yeah, I think as someone who has been in Arizona HER ENTIRE LIFE and who has been immersed in local politics for 12+ years here in Maricopa County … I think it’s safe to say I know what I’m talking about.

            At this point, delphi_ote, you’re only nitpicking.

      • Avatar of Laurel Halbany

        No, students cannot be required by law, in any state, to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t doubt that many schools pretend this isn’t the case and/or intimidate students into saying it anyway. And as Noadi says, this isn’t simply requiring students to say this oath every morning, but as a condition of graduation co-equal with having passed the appropriate classes and educational requirements.
        I respectfully disagree with the idea that “so help me God” is basically secular.

        • Avatar of Rebecca Watson

          “No, students cannot be required by law, in any state, to say the Pledge of Allegiance.”

          I’m sorry, but you’re just wrong about this.

          • Avatar of Will

            States can pass laws to require students to stand and say the pledge. Those laws are unconstitutional, but have to be challenged to be overturned.
            There are two court cases that ruled that students cannot be compelled to say the pledge (Supreme Court: West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette) and cannot be compelled to stand up during the pledge (11th Circuit: Holomon v Harland). So technically students cannot be required by law to stand and say the pledge, but that doesn’t stop states from passing laws that go unchallenged. All it would take to overturn those laws would be a student to challenge them. See: http://www.aclu-or.org/blog/students-not-required-participate-pledge-allegiance

            The cases that have tried to challenge the “under god” part of the pledge have failed (though there is currently a case in the Mass. Supreme Court). The ones that challenge forced recitation on the grounds of freedom of speech have been upheld.

          • Avatar of blaisepascal

            The Supreme Court of the United States begs to differ: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Virginia_State_Board_of_Education_v._Barnette

            The laws on the books requiring the pledge have been unenforceable since 1943.

          • Avatar of Laurel Halbany

            That’s not quite what your link says.
            1) A law ‘setting aside time for students to say the Pledge’ is not a law that actually requires students to stand up and recite the Pledge, as opposed to standing silently or remaining seated.
            2) Many states have laws still on the books that are null and not enforced but which have not been formally removed from the statutes. You’ve likely heard about the controversy over amending certain state constitutions to remove ineffective but racist language.
            Of course there are and will be states that will pass these laws, which are DOA because they were ruled unconstitutional a long time ago. It is simply not true that students can as a matter of law be required to recite the Pledge; though, as I said, there are plenty of schools which ignore the law and/or try to pressure students to do it anyway. (I live in one of the bluest parts of the country, and we had to have a Little Chat with the school administration about their “policy” that students stand during the Pledge.)

            Regardless I don’t understand the argument that Arizona’s proposed law is no biggie. Even setting aside the ‘so help me God’ which is hugely problematic in its own right, this is a law that mandates a loyalty oath as a condition of graduation of equal importance with, say, passing algebra.

          • Avatar of Will

            Pretty sure Rebecca didn’t say it was “no big deal.” What she said was it was not a persecution of atheists. And she’s right, it isn’t. It’s just a stupid jingoistic law that makes use of an anachronistic oath phrase. As Rebecca noted, one of the bill’s sponsors said the language would be amended such that atheists could affirm instead of swear–not that this makes the law better or “no big deal,” just that it shows that this is not a law aimed at preventing atheists from graduating high school.

          • Avatar of Rebecca Watson

            All this stuff about how the states have laws enforcing the pledge of allegiance but it’s ultimately unconstitutional? Um, yes, that is what I was saying in the OP. That’s the deal with that Pledge and it’s the same deal with this pledge.

          • Avatar of Rebecca Watson

            And yes, I didn’t say it wasn’t a big deal. It’s just not a big “atheist” issue, or an atheist issue at all.

  2. Avatar of Joshua Miller

    I appreciate you saying this! I’d seen similar freak-outs all over the Internet lately.

    For what it’s worth, the exact same language also appears in the Oath of Allegiance, by which every would-be-citizen must swear. So it’s a stupid bill, but it’s not cataclysmic…or even that noteworthy.

  3. Avatar of Jack Leonard

    Honestly, I’m more concerned about the phrase “… I take this obligation freely,” than I am the inclusion of an arguably benign incidence of religious language.

    Holding something as necessary as a high school diploma hostage in this way is just as reprehensible with or without the final clause.

    • Avatar of Will

      This. How can someone take the obligation freely if it is a requirement for graduation? I’m much more concerned about the forced nationalism than anachronistic language.

  4. Avatar of Buzz Parsec

    Why do simple-minded people continue to think that a promise extracted under duress is in any way ethically binding? It’s like a robber holding a hostage who says “I’ll release you, bu only if you promise to not call the police for an hour.”

  5. Avatar of Kevin Hengehold

    I realize God plays a big part in the skeptical community, but…. fuck God. Last year we made passive resistance illegal (http://www.azleg.gov/FormatDocument.asp?inDoc=/ars/13/02508.htm&Title=13&DocType=ARS), and now sedition is on the chopping block. Belief in the state can be as irrational as belief in the Invisible Sky Wizard sometimes, and this wants to make it a crime every public school student. Isn’t that an issue of skepticism?

  6. Avatar of cupcakelindzay

    What the fuck. Why do people need to pledge to defend the constitution when graduating high school? What if I don’t want to defend the constitution? No diploma? That’s not fair. We live in a country where we are SUPPOSED to be able to say whatever we want about our government. Forcing people to recite this to get a diploma is a violation of first amendment rights in itself. This is brainwash. It’s not a high school graduate’s job defend the constitution if they do not want to.

  7. Avatar of kagehi

    Tight deadline? Why is it that if some moron wants to tack on some horrible stuff, intended to kill a bill, there is always plenty of time, but removing one sentence from the thing is too complicated and time consuming to meet a deadline? You know.. just saying..

  8. Avatar of victoriadashtwenty

    The flag should be pledging allegiance to us. For a bunch of cold war anti-communist fanatics, their pledge sounds a little pinko to me.

    • Avatar of victoriadashtwenty

      That was meant to be a reply to the person that mentioned the school pledge of allegiance, doesn’t make as much sense here.

      • Avatar of bcmystery

        A fun way to inspire a little wingnut apoplexy is to say to them, “You know who required loyalty oaths? … Stalin.”

        • Avatar of Buzz Parsec

          The pledge of allegiance, as originally published in a socialist youth magazine in 1882, did not include the phrase under God. It was added in 1954. at the height of McCarthyism, as a snub to godless communism. But everyone here already knew that…

  9. Avatar of Jerry Schwarz

    I agree this isn’t an earth shaking issue and hardly the worse thing that has been proposed in Arizona lately. But it is unconstitutional to force someone to swear an oath (to God). Even Louisiana recognizes this: see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/01/18/after-an-atheist-gets-elected-to-public-office-his-first-challenge-is-taking-the-oath/

    • Avatar of Will

      It’s not just unconstitutional to force a person to swear an oath to God, but to force someone to swear an oath allegiance to the country as well.

      “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” – Justice Robert Jackson, West Virginia Board of Education v Barnette (1943)

  10. Avatar of annabolic

    Can you write a nice piece about, say, Kyrsten Sinema, just so we Arizonans can be less embarrassed?

  11. Avatar of JP

    I understand the constitutional issue. That is worth fighting if anyone is so inclined to challenge it, assuming it makes it into law.

    I have to agree though; I don’t see the atheist issue. They can swear to pixies (or any other mythical being for that matter) for all I care. Yes, it is mildly annoying, but isn’t worth wasting any emotional capital over.

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