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.