By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- The way Rep. John Fillmore sees it, young children need to hear and say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school.
So he convinced Republican members of the House Government and Elections Committee on Wednesday to mandate it for anyone in kindergarten through fourth grade.
The Apache Junction Republican said its components are important, ranging from the "I'' declaration, which makes it personal, to pledging to "the United States, that's all of the states.''
"And I think that it's important that we have the kids learn what these words mean and drummed into their heads,'' he said. "America is a country where people are still dying to come to and they put their lives at risk to come here.''
For older kids, those in grades 5 through 12, there would be no pledge requirement. Instead, Fillmore's HB 2060 would require at least a minute a day for students to "engage and quiet reflection and moral reasoning.''
Fillmore said he wants that language rather than simply a moment of silence.
"Sometimes the moment of silence is 'shut up and keep quiet' versus 'think about what is good for society or yourself or your family, and for your parents and for your country and community,' '' he said. "Even if they only think about what they're facing that day or the trials and tribulations in their little lives, I think (for) them to have that ability to have some kind of reasoning is a good thing.''
The idea of a daily pledge, weaved into state law, troubled Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson. She pointed out that among some religious groups the only pledge they are allowed to make is to God.
Fillmore pointed out his measure does permit parents to excuse their children from the requirement. But that didn't satisfy Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe. She said sometimes children don't have the same religious beliefs as their parents.
"The student as an individual has rights,'' Salman said. "And to force a student to have to rely on their parents in order for them to have their constitutional rights protected I think is a big loophole that could potentially violate the individual student's religious beliefs that might digress from what the parents believe.''
Tory Roberg, lobbyist for the Secular Coalition of Arizona, went a step farther. She suggested anything that pressures students to recite the pledge, with its language about the country being "one nation under God,'' could amount to illegal religious coercion.
Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, said he was "amazed'' at how many people had registered at the legislative web site as opposed to the measure.
"We're not talking about a prayer,'' he said. "We're talking about a pledge of allegiance to the flag.''
Payne pointed out that lawmakers begin each session with the same pledge.
"I just don't get it,'' he said. "I thought we were in America.''
Salman countered that's exactly the point.
"What we're talking about here is the Constitution of the United States of America,'' she said. "What we're talking about is the First Amendment.''
And she contends the measure violates that document.
The law, however, is less than clear.
In the only case addressing this, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that an Alabama law mandating a moment of silence was unconstitutional. But much of that was based on the admission by the measure's sponsor that it was designed to "return voluntary prayer to our public schools.''
But Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a concurring opinion, said she would have upheld the requirement if lawmakers had shown a true secular purpose in approving it. She said that school-led moments of silence can be legal because, unlike school-led prayers, they are not inherently religious and do not coerce students into participating.
The 7-6 vote sends the measure to the full House.