The Recent Pledge of Allegiance Controversy

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 22 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 What is the Pledge of Allegiance ?

3 History of the Pledge of Allegiance
3.1 Origins and First Alterations
3.2 The “Under God” Movement

4 The Recent Controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance
4.1 Michael Newdow and the Ninth Circuit Court Ruling
4.2 Nationwide Criticism: Polls, Capitol Hill, and Bush
4.3 The Ruling’s Advocates - American Atheists and Libertarians
4.4 Final Considerations - Was the Court Ruling Right?

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

On June 26, 2002, during his official statement in the U.S. Senate right before a resolution vote was going to take place, the Senator of West Virginia warned two judges of a federal appeals court to never come before him because “he’ll be blackballed.” “I wonder if that judge”, he continued, “would hold the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional. […] I hope the Senate will waste no time in throwing this back in the face of this stupid judge. Stupid, that's what he is.” The following resolution passed 99-0 (“SENATORS”). What had happened?

These words were part of an “impassioned speech”, delivered by the Democrat Robert Byrd only some hours after the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco had ruled the American Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. In its 2-to-1 opinion the court had decided that the Pledge is an “endorsement of religion” because it includes the phrase “under God”. Interestingly, Senator Robert Byrd is the only remaining member of Congress that voted for the addition of these two words almost 50 years ago (IBID.).

The Senate Resolution was only one aspect of what can be described as a “backlash” against the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Since then, a “full-scale culture war” (A FTERMATH) has been forming itself over the American institution of pledging allegiance. This paper wants to look closer at the recent controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance, particularly its phrase “under God”, in order to answer the questions whether the disputation is justifiable or not.

The reader has to take into consideration that this a paper written by a European student, handed in at a European university. Generally speaking, the European continent does not have a tradition of pledges of allegiances (with the exception of the Oath of Allegiance in the Republic of Ireland) and thus is not very familiar with the terminology at all. Therefore, to confront and understand the problématique, I will begin this paper by giving a definition of the American Pledge of Allegiance. Who pledges allegiance to whom? Why is this significant? Subsequently it is necessary to deal with the history of the Pledge, which will be the second consideration of my discussion. Where and when did the Pledge appear for the very first time? Why was it written? Did the phrase “under God” appear right from the beginning? After having developed a sense of the Pledge of Allegiance, I shall concentrate on the recent controversy. I will look at the decision made by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco which is the origin of the whole discussion. A decision which, one could suppose, could have divided American society. Though this is not really the case, as I will be illustrating, I will continue by introducing the two different views, the two different arguments of the controversy. Finally, I will add some additional considerations to the recent debate on the Pledge of Allegiance.

In all items of this paper the reader will be confronted with facts and interpretations that allows to draw only one conclusion: the criticism of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is understandable.

2 What is the Pledge of Allegiance ?

As already stated, this paper discusses its topic from a non-American, European point of view. For that reason I would like to begin with some general information on the Pledge in regard to the aspects relevant for this work’s problématique.

To define the term Pledge of Allegiance it is very useful to look at the laws of the United States of America. Both on the federal level and on the state level we find items figuring out what the Pledge really is and how far it is embedded in present American life.

The current version of the Pledge of Allegiance is officially codified twice in federal laws of the United States. The paragraphs in both sections are identical and are titled “Pledge of allegiance to the flag; manner of delivery” (UNITED STATES, C ODE OF L AW):

[…] 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.

Moreover, as the title of the code indicates, also the manner of delivery is prescribed in the very same paragraph as it continues:

[The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag] should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute (IBID.).

Besides the official instructions, what to recite exactly and how to behave while delivering the Pledge of Allegiance, the protocol makes clear that its author intended the Pledge to be more than a simple formality. By interpreting the U.S. Code you can state that the Pledge should rather be regarded as a ceremonial expression of patriotism by promising loyalty to the flag of United States of America symbolizing a nation where the sovereign power is invested in representatives chosen by people; to a country incapable of being divided and its principles of freedom, justice and equality. Importantly for my further considerations, the common belief in a supreme being is explicitly mentioned. The phrase “under God” can be regarded as not being simply an expression of patriotism, but also as an expression of religious piety. One could state that the two words are evidence that the United States considers itself to be a religious nation; not simply in the sense that most people are religious, but rather that the government confesses itself to religious principles - specifically, Christianity.

Having the status of a national institution, the Pledge of Allegiance has become an important part of the American way of life. It appears on various occasions, e.g. at official meetings of the Boy Scouts, the Masons, the American Legion, and also before each day’s sessions of both the House of Representatives and the Senate (FATA 18). Most apparently, however, the Pledge can be encountered in the everyday school life of the United States, which is the relevant factor for this paper. At the beginning of each day millions of American students all over the country pledge allegiance, provoked mostly by official state laws. Depending on the state, public schools may or may not be required to include “appropriate patriotic exercises” (UNITED STATES, N EWDOW V . U.S. C ONGRESS) – which is the Pledge in practically all cases. In August 2003, thirty-five states order the school officials to read or post the Pledge of Allegiance at least once a day. Furthermore, another five states “encourage” schools to conduct the Pledge but it is not obligatory. What has to be noted here is that in nearly all of these states the student may, for any reason, choose not to recite it (PISCATELLI 1)[1]. Nevertheless, this means that summa summarum forty out of fifty American states do have laws promoting school participation in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in some kind of way.

Thus, we recognize that pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States is formally integrated into American school life. Highest levels of governmental ruling interfere in this specific area of children’s education illustrating that teaching a “patriotic lesson” to the majority of American students as part of their daily life is officially regarded to be a necessity.

The major role of the Flag in American culture is unique among nations. The United Sates is the only country to have an elaborate flag patriotism culture. A Flag Day, a Flag Code etiquette, a national anthem dedicated to its flag, and a verbal flag salute to the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance. Some nations have some of these practices but none have all of them. Besides the Star Spangled Banner National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance is “at the center of American patriotism” (P LEDGE: Q UESTION AND A NSWERS). The current President of the United States, George W. Bush, specified the significance of the Pledge of Allegiance during an Independence Day celebration in 2002: “The American people, when we pledge our allegiance to the flag, feel renewed respect and love for all it represents” (A FTERMATH ).

Formal regulations take care that the Pledge is carried out nearly all over the country; including its phrase “under God”. The current version, however, is not the original one but the consequence of a long process during which the Pledge has been modified several times since it first appeared in 1892.

3 History of the Pledge of Allegiance

Over time, the Pledge grew to become not just something for children to recite, but rather a symbol for national unity placing itself right next to those outstanding institutions like the Bill of Rights or the U.S. Constitution. The first part of the following historical consideration looks back at the very beginnings; at the person who introduced the Pledge as the cornerstone of American patriotism as well as the two modifications that took place in the 1920s. In the second part I, accordingly, would like to focus on the circumstances under which the Pledge was changed by Congress in 1954 for the last time.

3.1 Origins and First Alterations

The original 23 words of the Pledge of Allegiance read as follows (BAER, H ISTORY):

I pledge allegiance to my Flag,

and (to[2] ) the Republic for which it stands:

one nation indivisible,

with liberty and justice for all.

The words were published in the September 8th issue of The Youth's Companion, a national family magazine published in Boston, in 1892. With a circulation of about 500,000, the magazine - owned by two “liberal businessmen”, Daniel Ford and James Upham - had the largest national circulation of its day. Responsible for the wording was a man named Francis Bellamy (1855 - 1931), a Baptist minister and “Christian Socialist”[3]. Interestingly, he joined the staff of The Youth’s Companion only after he had been excluded from his church, the Bethany Baptist church in Boston, one year earlier because of his “socialist activities” (BAER, S TRANGE O RIGIN).

Actual national publicity was first given to Bellamy’s words through the official program of the National Public School Celebration of Columbus Day in October 1892. Prior to this, it had been Bellamy alongside Upham who had arranged for Congress and President Benjamin Harrison to announce a national proclamation making the public school flag ceremony the center of the upcoming celebrations. In the material that, then, circulated nationwide, Bellamy had written: “Let the flag float over every school-house in the land and the exercise be such as shall impress upon our youth the patriotic duty of citizenship.” In this conscience, Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance was eventually repeated by more than 12 million public school children in every state in the union on Columbus Day 1892 (NATIONAL FLAG DAY FOUNDATION).

In 1923, at the First National Flag Conference held in Washington, D.C., under the leadership of the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Pledge 's wording was slightly changed. On the ground that some foreign-born children and adults when giving the Pledge might have in mind the flag of their native land, the words “my flag” were substituted for “the flag of the United States” (BAER, S TRANGE O RIGIN). In the following year, in 1924, the phrase was extended to read “the flag of the United States of America”, probably to avoid further kinds of misunderstandings.

We should keep in mind that the Pledge of Allegiance ’s original version did not include any references to a supreme being. Although the author Francis Bellamy was a clergyman and hence somebody who certainly believed in God, he had no religious allusion included in his version. This turns out to be not very surprising as Bellamy was a member - though later expelled - of the (northern) Baptist church that firmly promotes the separation of church and state which is regarded to be “healthy both for the church and the state”. He believed in freedom of religion, freedom for religion and freedom from religions. He believed in the “priesthood of all believers” and the freedom of every person to relate directly to God “without the imposition of any creed by the government” (P LEDGE : Q UESTIONS AND A NSWERS). In addition, also the continuing rise of patriotism - illustrated e.g. by The Legion ’s Americanism campaign “to foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism” (BAER, S TRANGE O RIGIN) - during and after World War I did not see any necessity to link itself with religious faith, as the first two adjustments proved. Yet, this perspective was beginning to change during and after World War II and has to have installed itself ever since.

3.2 The “Under God” Movement

By giving official recognition in 1942, when Congress adopted the Flag Code by joint resolution[4], the government “established its authority over the Pledge and over its use” (M YTHS). Having turned itself into a real national emblem through World War II, it had moreover become a political issue for politicians to use in an effort to prove who is the most authentically patriotic.

It was not until the 1950s, however, that religious matters should enter the Pledge of Allegiance. Though it is precisely unclear where the campaign originated, one can name the Catholic fraternal society of the Knights of Columbus to have been one of the driving forces of an upcoming “under God” movement. During a time, when people in the United States were persecuted, denied work, and even jailed for having Communist leanings, the Knights of Columbus made the effort to distinguish the U.S. from “the atheist Soviet Union”, while propagandizing to add the words “under God” to the Pledge. The Knights who themselves already used a “God-infused” version of the Pledge for use in their own meetings, began to bombard Congress with calls for the United States to do the same (GREENBERG).

The movement, however, didn't take off until 1954, when the Rev. George M. Docherty gave a famous sermon in favor of adding “under God” to the Pledge at a Presbyterian church in Washington. With President Eisenhower in the pew before him, he argued that the Pledge was missing “the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life.” He added,

“I could hear little Moscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity” (50 YEARS AGO). Perhaps forgetting that “liberty and justice for all” was not the norm in Moscow, Docherty exhorted the inclusion of “under God” to denote the special or rather distinguishing attributes of the United States – in his opinion.

Not long after the sermon, Eisenhower himself urged Congress to include the words “under God” to the Pledge to reaffirm “the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future.” As a result, according to the President, the United States could “strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war” (M YTHS). In signing the Congressional resolution on June 14, 1954, America’s Flag Day, Eisenhower formally confirmed the new and still valid version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

The second extension of the Pledge of Allegiance was, hence, the consequence of its raising politization. A politization that occurred not coincidently at the very same time like another phenomenon, which began to spread all over the United States: the “Red Scare”. The Knights of Columbus utilized America’s fears to initiate an “under God” movement and linked successfully the people’s desire for national unity with opposition to “Godless Communism”. The result was a modified version of the Pledge that, from then on, connected American patriotism with religious faith.

Twenty-three words what had been initially penned for a Columbus Day celebration, have been transformed to a thirty-one-word profession of loyalty and devotion not only to a flag, but to a whole way of life. A way of life that obviously needed a religious component to distinguish itself from a hostile system. Yet, the addition of “under God” in 1954 did not only separate the United States from an ideological enemy but likely also those who did not believe in any gods or, even if they were theists, did not believe that God has anything to do with nations or politics. The matter of the “under God” remained and simmered for decades below the public eye. It was not until June 2002, however, that the Pledge, respectively its two little words should be questioned immensely in a legal court case in California.

4 The Recent Controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance has made its way to become a major centerpiece in the expression of American patriotism during the last century. Although the Pledge has been “religionized” and therefore distanced itself from of its major original ideas, its popularity increased steadily and no bigger objections have been expressed by the American people. Yet, it was in 2002 that a three-judge panel in San Francisco ruled that the Pledge is unconstitutional because it includes the phrase “under God”. The case was brought to court by an atheist father arguing that these two words infringe his daughter’s rights at her school. A furor has arisen since that attributes to the significance of today’s version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

In the following chapter I would like to introduce the different aspects of the recent controversy. My analysis will start with a closer look at the judgment given by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, respectively the plaintiff Michael Newdow – the man, as TIME Magazine described it, that “pitted almost everyone else in the country against him” (LABI). The dimensions and argumentations of this uproar will afterwards be the focus in the following two sections. On the one hand I will introduce the defenders of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance – mainly represented by the current American administration. On the other hand I will present the minority, those who stand up in favor for the Ninth Court’s ruling and concentrate on their arguments. Finally I would like to add some final considerations in order to answer the question whether the ruling can be considered to be right or not.

4.1 Michael Newdow and the Ninth Circuit Court Ruling

On June 26, 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that school policy requiring recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance was an unconstitutional “endorsement of religion” (NIEVES) because of the inclusion of the phrase “under God” by the act of Congress in 1954. The ruling that came in a 2-1 decision in the case of Newdow v. U.S. Congress et al. certainly marked the beginning of the recent controversy over the Pledge.

The plaintiff, Michael Newdow, is an atheist whose daughter attends public school in Elk Grove Unified Public School District near Sacramento. California law requires that public schools begin each school day with “appropriate patriotic exercises” and that the Pledge would be sufficient to comply. Elk Grove policy states: “Each elementary school class [shall] recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag once each day”. Though the state law does not require the individual to participate, Newdow claimed that his daughter is injured anyway when she is compelled to “watch and listen as her state employed teacher in her state-run school leads her classmates in a ritual proclaiming that there is a God, and that our's [sic] is ‘one nation under God’.” Accepting the case the court found that “Newdow has standing as a parent to challenge a practice that interferes with his right to direct the religious education of his daughter.” The United States Congress, the State of California, two school districts, and their officials were named as defendants (UNITED STATES, N EWDOW V . U.S. C ONGRESS).

During the trial the court tried to analyze whether the Pledge of Allegiance contains a strong enough religious component to constitute an “endorsement of religion” and thus “violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment”. The Establishment Clause states, among others, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion […]” (IBID.).

By applying three tests, formerly used by the Supreme Court over the last three decades[5], the court firstly stated that the legislative history of the 1954 law that added “under God” to the Pledge was clearly religious in intent and therefore endorses and fosters religious values. Secondly, the three-judge panel found that the phrase “under God” in the context of the Pledge was “normative”, creating a sense of exclusion toward non-believers and “those who worship multiple gods”. Finally, it determined that the school policy requiring recitation places students in a position of either “participating in a religious exercise or protesting” (IBID.). Ergo, Judge Alfred T. Goodwin declared in the official majority opinion of the court according to the plaintiff, that the recitation of the Pledge was “not to describe the United States”, but rather “to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and - since 1954 - monotheism”. Goodwin reasoned that a profession that we were a nation “under God” was identical to a profession that we were “a nation ‘under Jesus’, a nation ‘under Vishnu’, a nation ‘under Zeus’, or a nation ‘under no god’”, regarding that “none of these professions could be neutral with respect to religion” (“OPINIONS”).

Since it is officially sponsored by the First Amendment of the Constitution, the non-establishment of a state church is surely one of the major principles which formed the foundation of the United States of America. Nonetheless, it had taken almost fifty years until one person interpreted the inclusion “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to be a violation of that principle and eventually confronted these two words which, in his view, represented a state-sponsored infusion of religion into the classroom.

The fact that Michael Newdow’s daughter was not forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance is minor, because her religious education, as Newdow contended, was being infringed anyway, by simply listening to the everyday practice. Newdow had a point here because students, on the one hand, could indeed become outsiders, not full members of a community likely to be “scapegoated” or targeted for harassment for not joining their classmates. On the other hand, it is furthermore misleading to claim that a religious exercise performed each morning by the entire class including the teacher does not influence the individual - in regard to the important role of schools in children’s education. The court ruled according to these fears. “Given the age and impressionability of schoolchildren,” so Judge Goodwin added, “particularly within the confined environment of the classroom, the policy is highly likely to convey an impermissible message of endorsement to some and disapproval to others of their beliefs regarding the existence of a monotheistic God” (NIEVES).

In August 2002, the Bush Administration filed an appeal that requested an en banc rehearing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, meaning that an 11-judge panel is asked to reconsider the decision. In a “surprise ruling” in February 2003 the panel rejected the request. Consequently, the administration, the state, the school districts involved, and Michael Newdow brought the case to the next higher authority, the U.S. Supreme Court who, in October of the same year, accepted to review the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision in March 2004. Until then, the original ruling which would ban the current version of the Pledge in the nine Western states under the court's jurisdiction[6], is placed on hold (LAPKOFF).

4.2 Nationwide Criticism: Polls, Capitol Hill, and Bush

The ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals came as a shock to millions of Americans. Even the cynical “nothing-can-surprise-us national media raised its collective eyebrow at the decision”. Judges from all over the country called radio stations, offering suggestions of how to deal with their “renegade brethren” (BARTON). Newspapers and TV reports “were filled with denunciations by average citizens and political commentators alike”. In a display of “bipartisanship not witnessed since the days immediately following September 11”, politicians from both parties attacked the decision. Only a few stand up in support for the ruling when for one hysterical moment, as the TIME Magazine noted, “Alfred Goodwin replaced Osama Bin Laden as the most reviled man in America” (LABI).

The ruling set off a nationwide blast of protest. Vehement reactions came from conservative religious groups. “I think the opinion is absurd,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which was aligned with the Christian Coalition. “This is the first court to hold the pledge with the phrase ‘with one nation under God’ is unconstitutional. They've created a constitutional crisis for no reason.” Calling the ruling “appalling”, an American reverend argued that “this is probably the worst ruling of any federal appellate court in history” (NIEVES).

The conservatives were not on their own as their views were apparently shared by the vast majority of the American people. According to a poll, released by Newsweek in June 2002, nearly nine in ten Americans believed the phrase “under God” should remain in the Pledge of Allegiance, and most even believed it is acceptable for the government to promote religious expression, as long as “no specific religion is mentioned” (“VAST MAJORITY”). Is this the “majoritarian triumphalism”? Does being part of a majority give a moral license to disregard dissenting viewpoints? “Belonging to a majority is a privilege”. As the saying goes, there is a safety in numbers. With that safety should come a measure of humility. Rather than triumphantly proclaiming that the Ninth Circuit's opinion is out of step with the beliefs of most Americans, the public should use the safety of their numbers to take a serious look at the claim that this parent has made on behalf of his daughter. The American people are “at their best when they tackle difficult issues and reaffirm their values by challenging their own assumptions”. They are “at their worst when they refuse to question their beliefs and rely on numbers to silence”, rather than foster, debate (WOLFF).

Not surprisingly, the whole political spectrum joined the furor. Steve Duprey, the retired chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who is still active in national Republican politics, said that the decision was “so out of tune with what Americans believe, I don't think it will be a hot political issue […], because I don't think Republicans or Democrats will agree with it.” The Governor of New York, George E. Pataki, called the decision “junk justice” (NIEVES). More forcefully, however, opinions were expressed by even higher levels of American politics:

Firstly, it was Congress who rapidly and sternly opposed the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court. Immediately after the ruling was published members from both the House of Representatives and Senate walked outside their chambers, gathered on the steps outside the Capitol, and recited the Pledge by facing the Supreme Court - with a “particularly loud emphasis on the ‘offensive’ phrase” (BARTON). Later the same day, as stated earlier, the Senate passed a resolution by a vote of 99-0, “strongly disapproving of the decision and authorizing the Senate to seek to intervene in the case to defend the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance” (UNITED STATES, S ENATE R ESOLUTION 292). The Senate resolution was pushed quickly to the floor by then Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Senator of South Dakota. He called the court’s decision “nuts” backing his fellow Senator Trent Lott from Mississippi who had characterized the ruling as being “incorrect and stupid” (“SENATORS”). The following day the House of Representatives passed a similar resolution by the vote of 416-3, affirming its belief that the ruling “is inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's First Amendment jurisprudence that the Pledge of Allegiance and similar expressions are not unconstitutional expressions of religious belief” (UNITED STATES, H OUSE R ESOLUTION 459).

Secondly, it was the American President himself who repeatedly attacked the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a formal statement, one day after the decision, George W. Bush expressed his “eternal support” for the Pledge simultaneously damning also a whole city: “Now we all know that the 9th Circuit Court is in San Francisco - a city where satanic homos swarm around like blowflies on corn shit, and liberal communists flaunt their hatred of America by daring to question the status quo”. Bush assured America that his administration would do “everything in its power to strike down this foolish and profoundly un-American and un-fraternal ruling” (BUSH).

The next day, the president enlarged on his comments: “America is a nation that […] values our relationship with an Almighty,” he said. “A declaration of God in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't violate rights. As a matter of fact, it's a confirmation of the fact that we received our rights from God, as proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence” (“I WANT JUDGES”). Bush may have a point in mentioning the Declaration of Independence because God is mentioned in the first paragraph as well as in the second. But whereas Bush thought of the Declaration of Independence that was more a political statement about what this country was going to become, he forgot the Constitution. When this document, “central to American democracy”, was written, the word God was not put in it at all, because that was the “governing principal guaranteeing the freedom of conscience and if you don't believe in the freedom of conscience and the right of somebody to say, you should not tie both religion and patriotism” (CARLSON).

Most remarkable was Bush’s appearance at the 2002 Independence Day celebration in Ripley, West Virginia, where he led a local crowd in what the Washington Times described as a “rousing rendition” of the Pledge of Allegiance. “More than ever in the lifetimes of most Americans”, so Bush, “the flag stands for a unified country. We've been united in our grief, and we are united in our resolve to protect our people and to defeat the enemies of the United States of America.” He concluded that “no authority of government can ever prevent an American from pledging allegiance to this one nation under God” (A FTERMATH). The president as well as the American people in general were still under the impression of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Aware of the fact that the crowd he was addressing, was “heavily represented by evangelical Christians” George Bush wasted no time in reinforcing the connection between patriotism and religious belief as he “apologetically invoked the name of God” (IBID.) Interpreting the words of Bush, to be a good American patriot, you also have to believe in one God – but this is “just” the official standpoint of the American president.

4.3 The Ruling’s Advocates - American Atheists and Libertarians

Praise for the Ninth Circuit Court decision was muted. Arthur Hayes, a law professor at Quinnipiac University, called the decision a “well-reasoned opinion that is certain to enrage the Christian right.” Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that while he “supported the decision, it should not be seen as a finding against the entire pledge” – pointing at the facts where nearly all of the people who had railed against the court ruling got confused with. “They didn't strike down the Pledge of Allegiance,” Mr. Conn explained. “All they said is Congress made a mistake when they added God to the pledge” (NIEVES). Most representatively for those, however, who speak up in favor for the decision made by the Ninth Court were America’s non-believers and Libertarians.

In spite of the “furious backlash”, America's diverse community of Atheists, Freethinkers and others who profess no religion and support the Newdow ruling seemed to be speaking out in record numbers. Clippings, copies of e-mail, and video indicate that while the vast majority of Americans seem to oppose the Ninth Circuit decision, there is also “healthy and aggressive support” for striking “under God” from the Pledge. “We're seeing a lot of letters to the editors of local papers and response to online and television polls,” said Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists who was “frantically trying to keep up with the media inquiries”. Her organization has launched several initiatives in support of Michael Newdow, e.g. an online petition. “We remember plenty of times in our history when Atheists and others who took a courageous stand like Dr. Newdow has done were subjected to threats of violence, unfair denunciations and hysterical opposition,” Johnson continued. “When she won her court suit to remove coercive prayer and Bible verse recitation from the public schools, Madalyn Murray had her windows broken, her home besieged by religious bullies, and she was eventually physically run out of Baltimore” (A FTERMATH).

A more specific accusation by the American atheists were expressed while criticizing the exclusionary character of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Those who did not believe in any gods and those who, even if they were theists, did not believe that God has anything to do with politics, so the atheists, would be the first to become separated from the polity. As the United States has a “strong tradition of seeing this country as a new Zion and as being specially blessed by God for some Greater Purpose”, the atheists take into consideration what is meant by the term “God”. Supporters of the Pledge would generally argue that this can mean anything - it doesn't matter what sort of “Higher Power” you believe in because anyone who does is automatically included. This, however, would trivialize the mention of “God” in the Pledge and it would be unacceptable to the aforementioned theists who were certain “that their particular God is Protector and Benefactor of this country” (M YTHS).

One of the few allies of the atheists is the Libertarian Party that one day after the ruling officially expressed their support for the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court. The Pledge of Allegiance should not be required in government-run schools, the Libertarians say, because a nation in which a government can coerce religion or patriotism is no longer free.

”America is made great by its freedom, not by a flag,” said Steve Dasbach, Libertarian Party executive director. “Our children should have the freedom to pledge or not to pledge, and the freedom to worship or not to worship.” Though the ruling addressed only the religious aspect of the Pledge, and the court was perfectly clear about this, the debate quickly broadened to one over the Pledge itself as President Bush struggles with the war on terrorism. ”Libertarians have enormous respect for the values that the U.S. flag represents, and we understand that the way to honor those values is by preserving liberty, not by limiting it,” Dasbach said. ”Real religious freedom includes the right to not be religious, and true political freedom includes the right to not pledge allegiance to a political symbol. […] Politicians who rail against this ruling and claim they're defending the flag are confused by the difference between a symbol and the freedom for which it stands” (LIBERTARIAN PARTY).

Once again, “belief in God” is not equated with patriotism, support of the armed forces, and support of one's country. Those who do not believe in God, who do not believe that God is on any one nation's side, or who do not believe that children should be put in a position where they might feel forced to violate their consciences may not be regarded as oddballs who do not support the United States.

4.3 Final Considerations - Was the Court Ruling Right?

The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the Pledge of Allegiance has brought out some of the worst that America has to offer. The response of the public, the media, and elected representatives has been “an embarrassment of knee-jerk reactions”, “majoritarian triumphalism”, and “cheap expressions of hollow patriotism” (WOLFF). Speaking in legal terms, the Ninth Circuit Court may have been correct in its decision against “under God”, or it may have been wrong. Speaking in terms of morality, however, the ruling is justifiable.

An aspect presented in this paper was the large majority of the American population that supports the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The issue, resulting from that aspect, is whether or not a large majority of the population, through their State Legislatures and Congress, may mandate the exact wording of a specific patriotic ritual with a religious dimension, the Pledge, for students and teachers in public schools when a minority of the citizens do not like it. The answer is “no”. The citizens of the USA are people of many different religions but also of no faith. When we say “people of every faith,” we mean Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, Bahi, etc., but also people of no religious faith. The “land of the free” may never forget its special responsibility to all its citizens, including those who do not believe in any God at all. They may never forget what religious freedom really means. Considering the nationwide uproar after the ruling, the United States may never forget that the decision did not forbid anyone from privately reciting the current pledge, “under God” included, and it reaffirmed the right of schools to lead children in the secular version of the Pledge - the version that predated the “under God” edition by over fifty years. In connecting religious belief and patriotism, as promoted by it the current administration, the principles of American democracy and liberty were led ad absurdum.

The Establishment Clause of the Constitution is meant to prevent a feeling of alienation by official statements of religious belief. Having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance could at least be interpreted by some as being that very statement. When public school teachers lead students in reciting the Pledge, it not only expresses a government position, it pressures children to join in. Undoubtedly the result could be that some would, of course, feel alienated or excluded by such official statements of religious belief.

“Under God” in the Pledge send children a message that they are not fully American if they do not believe in God and embrace God in public life. It is young children who are led in this exercise which makes the issue so delicate. An adult is much better equipped than a child to understand the difference between an acknowledgement of religious belief and a statement about who belongs and who does not. Indeed, we all understand that most school children are particularly sensitive to being told that they are not part of a community. A community where the individual is told that to be an authentic American you have either to believe in God or at least, one could also argue, believe that God is on America’s side. If that is not exclusionary?

The Ninth Circuit Court's attempt to deal with a difficult issue was careful, measured and responsible. The case now will be presented to the U.S. Supreme Court where the whole subject is to be reconsidered. In a remarkable development, Justice Antonin Scalia will not take part in the decision. He has excused himself because he publicly stated his opposition to the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling in January when he said that issues like the Pledge should be settled by lawmakers rather than judges. Thus, it is possible that the remaining eight justices could produce a 4-4 split decision. With such a “deadlock”, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling would stand and apply to the Pledge only as recited by schoolchildren within the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, but would not affect the rest of the country. On the other hand, if the Supreme Court upholds the original ruling, the wording of the Pledge would have to be changed not only in public schools across the country, but in the U.S. legal code as well (MEARS).

5 Conclusion

“One Nation under God, indivisible, with justice and liberty for all”. The United States of America claims to be the country that treats everybody equally, with the same standards. Those standards, however, do not apply to atheists, agnostics, in short America’s non-believers. The phrase “under God” was and still is at least a commitment to a supreme being and therefore excludes the aforementioned. The American Pledge of Allegiance perverts its own expressed principles when children, in what kind ever, are suppressed to acknowledge that the United States is God’s chosen country. The text of the official Pledge, codified in federal law, impermissibly takes a position with respect to the purely religious question of the existence and identity of God. The author Francis Bellamy did not include God in the original version, aware of the fact that introducing the patriotic duty of citizenship did not define itself via religious belief. The circumstances that led to the inclusion of “under God” in the 1950s must be seen as being more the result of the contrast between two different ideologies than being the result of a desire for an official religious confession.

The Pledge became the centerpiece in the expression of American patriotism during the last century. It became a tradition reflecting “renewed respect and love” for American values. A tradition that (once) saw its “characteristic and definite factor” in a common belief in God. The United States nowadays has to ask itself whether the distinguishing feature is still to search in religion. In my opinion it could focus on different, more outstanding values without restricting a certain group of their people.

When Senators like Robert Byrd threaten to “blackball” judges for unpopular opinions, they are interfering with the process of judging in a fundamental and dangerous fashion. The proper response to a potentially misguided ruling is an appeal to a higher court, not an appeal to base threats. There may be opinions a judge might issue that would be so outrageous as to warrant immediate calls for “blackballing” or impeachment. A good-faith attempt to define the separation between Church and State, like that represented by the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is not one of them.

After 09/11 America’s desire for patriotism was strengthened. The significance of the Pledge of Allegiance began to grow as schools across the USA turned more openly to prayer for solace. But does the banning of the debated words “under God” really mean that the Pledge would become less patriotic? The answer is again “no”. To me, religion and patriotism are two different things. Americans can be “authentic”, 100 percent American without believing in God. The United States experienced that sometimes, patriotism becomes the penultimate refuge for people. And sometimes - as Osama bin Laden should have proven to the United States and the rest of the world - religion becomes the last refuge.

The controversy is justifiable which is at least proven by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that in October 2003 said it would hear the case of Michael Newdow in March of the following year (MEARS). It will rule on whether the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was correct; they will rule on whether the Pledge of Allegiance, as currently worded, should be banned from publicly funded school classrooms. Does the Pledge really violate the First Amendment principle of the separation of church and state and effectively endorses religion?

The stage is set for the big showdown in Washington D.C. The very first session of the Supreme Court will begin with the words: “God save the United States and this honorable Court”. I, then, expect Michael Newdow to stand up immediately and call: “Objection!”

6 Bibliography

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[1] the relevant lawsuit was filed in the state of California where schools are required to lead the Pledge of Allegiance but not the individual student.

[2] ‘to’ added in October, 1892.

[3] the term “Christian Socialism” apparently was coined by J.F.D. Maurice in England in 1848. Arguing that the essence of Christianity was brotherhood, he criticized the laissez-faire economic doctrine of no government interference in the economy. He saw the economy as people working together, not a collection of competing individuals. He believed that the principle of justice, not of selfishness and greed, should govern economic life (P LEDGE - Q UESTIONS AND A NSWERS).

[4] including an alteration of its accompanying salute from an outstretched arm to the current right hand over the heart.

[5] the “three-prong test” set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the “endorsement” test, first articulated by Justice O'Connor in her concurring opinion in Lynch, and later adopted by a majority of the Court in County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989), and the “coercion” test first used by the Court in Lee v. Weisman (1991).

[6] namely the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington (NIEVES).


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Title: The Recent Pledge of Allegiance Controversy