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America's Culture War: Government and God

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"Under God" is Under Fire

by  A.P. Staff

At first glance, the news seemed encouraging. According to a decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court on June 14, 2004, the phrase “under God” will continue to be included in the Pledge of Allegiance. However, this is not as encouraging as it appears. Instead of ruling on the merits of the case, eight of the nine justices (Justice Scalia recused himself from ruling) decided that the respondent did not have the proper standing to bring a case before the Supreme Court, leaving the Pledge of Allegiance open to further attacks.

The case began in 2000, when Michael A. Newdow filed a lawsuit in the Eastern California District of the Ninth Circuit against the U.S. Congress, President Bush, the State of California, the Elk Grove Unified School District, and school superintendent David W. Gordon. In his suit, Newdow, who is an atheist, claimed that requiring his daughter to recite the phrase “under God” every morning in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the clauses of the Constitution that prohibit the establishment of a national religion and the free exercise of religion (Stevens, 2004, p. 4).

The Pledge of Allegiance originated in the 1892 celebrations of Columbus Day, and read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag, and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” The wording was revised several times over the course of the next sixty-two years, the final change coming in 1954 when President Eisenhower approved the addition of the words “under God.” He said: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war” (“The Story of the Pledge of Allegiance”).

The district court ruled that the Pledge was constitutional, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually overturned the ruling. Following motions filed by Sandra Banning—the mother and legal custodian of Newdow’s daughter—and a custody ruling by the California Superior Court, the Court of Appeals amended its opinion. The new opinion omitted any statement on the overall constitutionality of the Pledge, but ruled that the school district’s policy—requiring teachers to lead students in reciting the Pledge every morning—did violate the Constitution. The Elk Grove School District then appealed to the Supreme Court, asking if Newdow had proper standing to bring the suit, and, if so, whether the policy of required recitation violated the Constitution (Stevens, pp. 5-7).

Writing for the court, Justice Stevens said: “Nothing that either Banning [the girl’s mother] or the School Board has done, however, impairs Newdow’s right to instruct his daughter in his religious views” (p. 13). The court ruled that Newdow could not bring the case, since he was not the legal custodian of the child, and so overturned the amended opinion of the Ninth Circuit. Thus, this ruling left undecided the merits of the Pledge’s constitutionality.

However, in a concurring opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist: “On the merits, I conclude that the Elk Grove Unified School District (School District) policy that requires teachers to lead willing students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the words ‘under God,’ does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment” (2004, p. 1). In another concurring opinion, Justice O’Connor wrote: “Like the Chief Justice, I believe that we must examine those questions, and, like him, I believe that petitioner school district’s policy of having its teachers lead students in voluntary recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance does not offend the Establishment Clause” (2004, p. 1). In a third concurring opinion, Justice Thomas wrote: “We granted certiorari [certiorari is a review of a decision by a lower court] in this case to decide whether the Elk Grove Unified School District’s Pledge policy violates the Constitution. The answer to that question is: ‘no’ ” (2004, p. 1).

Where does this leave the Pledge of Allegiance? As shown by the concurring opinions above, three of the eight justices who ruled in the case were prepared to decide that it is constitutional to recite the Pledge with the phrase “under God” intact. For now, the Pledge of Allegiance remains a reminder that the United States of America was founded on the belief of a Supreme Being. Whether or not that view continues, however, remains to be seen.

The application to Christians is that taking “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance would put the United States farther down the slippery slope as it heads toward becoming a godless, morally depraved nation. This country was founded upon the common law principles of the Old World, which were, in turn, founded upon biblical, godly morals. If we are not under God, then the sky is the limit to our degeneration.

REFERENCES

O’Connor, Justice Sandra Day (2004), Elk Grove v. Newdow, U.S. Supreme Court, [On-line], URL: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/03pdf/02-1624.pdf.

Rehnquist, Chief Justice William H. (2004), Elk Grove v. Newdow, U.S. Supreme Court, [On-line], URL: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/03pdf/02-1624.pdf.

Stevens, Justice John Paul (2004), Elk Grove v. Newdow, U.S. Supreme Court, [On-line], URL: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/03pdf/02-1624.pdf.

“The Story of the Pledge of Allegiance,” Flag Day Foundation, [On-line], URL: http://www.flagday.org/Pages/StoryofPledge.html.




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