August 17, 2015; Education Week (Associated Press)

If you thought some of the stupidest manifestations of the McCarthy era were dead and buried, think again. The American Civil Liberties Union had to tell the school district of Hastings, Nebraska, that it should not require teachers “to pledge that they will teach students to love the United States.”

The Hastings school district’s requirement is suspiciously similar to the “loyalty oaths” that Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) promoted during the 1950s. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that employees couldn’t be required to sign a loyalty oath, but a state law in Nebraska enacted in the 1950s is still there and serves as the basis for the Hastings school district’s request.

The Nebraska ACLU legal director, Amy Miller, noted that Hastings could be hit with a civil rights lawsuit if it went forward with the loyalty oaths. School superintendent Craig Kautz, however, said the school district’s action was legal and that at least one of the two loyalty oaths on the books in Nebraska was still valid.

“As a public school, we can’t selectively decide what laws we abide by and which ones we don’t,” Kautz explained. “I just hope we don’t get dragged into something that’s above our level.”

Still burdened with McCarthy-era laws, Nebraska’s two loyalty laws are these:

  • One requires all public school teachers to pledge that they will “instill students with an understanding of the U.S. and Nebraska Constitution, a knowledge and history of the nation and the sacrifices made to achieve its ‘present greatness,’ a love and devotion to the polices that made America the ‘finest country in the world in which to live,’ and opposition to all groups and activities that would destroy the present form of government.”
  • The other that requires public servants, presumably more than teachers, “to disavow any ties to political parties that advocate the violent overthrow of the government.”

If you’re surprised by Nebraska, you might be more surprised to discover a loyalty oath requirement in California mandated by the state constitution. The California loyalty oath text reads as follows:

“I, ___, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter.”

Should we ignore Hastings and ignore California for imposing loyalty oaths? Are they simply meaningless requirements that government employees (and volunteers!) can sign without a second thought? As politics in this country is becoming more divisive and antagonistic toward people who hold different beliefs, loyalty oaths are not inconsequential and meaningless. Remember Texas state legislator Molly White, a Republican, who demanded that Muslims who might visit her office take a loyalty oath to renounce Islamic terrorism and to announce allegiance to America and its laws? One can only imagine that in the revival of nativism in American politics, there is a slice of the American electorate that might find loyalty oaths an attractive idea.—Rick Cohen