Legislative Bill 399, introduced by State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, cleared the second of three rounds of debate on a 40-2 vote.
The bill would revamp a state law dealing with civics education and American government that dates to 1949. The changes are aimed at modernizing language adopted at a time when Americans were concerned about the spread of communism and the country had just finished a war with the Nazis.
Slama said the “hate-filled” posts made by Bennett Bressman, a former employee of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ re-election campaign, illustrate the need for better civics education.
The posts, which became public over the past two days, were originally made on a private chat room operated by a white nationalist. They included slurs and threats concerning African-Americans, immigrants, Jews, Israel, homosexuals and journalists.
Slama, who served as press secretary for the campaign, said she had not known Bressman well and had no idea about his views. She called the online comments “indefensible” and “sickening.”
“Evidently we’re failing somewhere in teaching kids why these views are vile and unacceptable,” she said.
She noted that LB 399 calls for teaching students about the “dangers and fallacies of forms of government that restrict individual freedoms or possess anti-democratic ideas such as, but not limited to, Nazism and communism.”
Among other changes, LB 399 would replace the term “Americanism” with the more neutral “American civics.” It also would repeal a provision under which teachers and administrators could be charged with a misdemeanor for failing to carry out the law.
The bill would require each student to complete one of three options as part of their civics education. They include taking the civics portion of the naturalization test given to would-be citizens, going to a government meeting followed by doing a paper or project, or doing a project or paper and class presentation about a person or events commemorated by selected holidays named in the bill.
Slama agreed to the three options as a compromise on LB 399. Efforts to change the Americanism bill in previous years required all students to do the naturalization civics test.
But Slama refused to accept other changes offered by Omaha Sens. Ernie Chambers and Megan Hunt, who opposed the bill.
Hunt argued that the bill went too far toward compulsory patriotism and jingoism.
“You can’t make a patriot through legislation,” she said.
She offered an amendment that would have turned LB 399 into a bill strictly dealing with civics education and eliminating such language as the call for youths “to be given the opportunity to become competent, responsible, patriotic and civil citizens.”
Slama opposed the amendment, saying it would gut the bill. The amendment failed.
The proposal comes as the State Board of Education is working to update social studies standards, which include civics education.