'One nation' - but under what?
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Despite the presence of this technical issue, the vast majority of the briefs filed in the case deal with the merits of the Pledge issue. Supporters of the Pledge in its current form see no constitutional difficulty in the government acknowledging the role of religion in national life by including the words "under God" in the Pledge.Skip to next paragraph
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Those challenging the 1954 insertion of "God" into the Pledge say it amounts to an impermissible government endorsement of religion over nonreligion, and that it forces schoolchildren to embrace a particular religious belief (monotheism) in order to express patriotism.
The vast majority of elected officials support the current wording of the Pledge. The US Senate has voted 99 to 0, and the House 416 to 3, to keep "God" in the Pledge. But legal experts say that given the direction of the high court's church-state jurisprudence in recent years, the Pledge case is a close one.
How the Pledge case is resolved will go a long way in defining to what extent the government may play a role in promoting religion and religious concepts in an increasingly diverse nation of believers and nonbelievers.
"When read as a whole, the Pledge is reasonably understood, not as establishing a state religion, but as celebrating and affirming the nation and the historical forces and ideals that formed its unique character," says US Solicitor General Theodore Olson in his brief to the court.
Newdow disagrees. "To single out that one aspect of the nation's origins, and to extol its virtues within the Pledge of Allegiance, is an endorsement contrary to the Establishment Clause's principles," he says in his brief to the court. " 'Under God' in the Pledge is an example of the majority using the machinery of the state to enforce its preferred religious orthodoxy."
Two prior decisions by the high court are likely to play a key role in the resolution of the Pledge case. In 1943, the justices upheld classroom recitation of the Pledge, provided any objecting students were not forced to participate. Although that case was decided before the words "under God" were added to the Pledge, its supporters say the same opt-out principle applies to those who might object to repeating the words "under God."
In the second case, the justices ruled in 1992 that the Constitution forbids a member of the clergy from offering a prayer at a middle school graduation ceremony. The high court reasoned in a 5-to-4 decision that offering such a prayer would force students to participate in a religious exercise at a school-sanctioned event.
Pledge challengers say the "under God" component of the Pledge is an even more egregious effort by the government to coerce schoolchildren into participating in a daily religious exercise.
"The Pledge puts schoolchildren who do not embrace monotheism to the Hobson's choice of affirming religious beliefs they do not hold and foregoing participation in a patriotic ritual," says Peter Irons, director of the Earl Warren Bill of Rights Project at the University of California, San Diego, in a friend-of-the-court brief.
"The 1954 law adding 'under God' to the Pledge made affirmation of religious belief an official element of patriotism and religiosity an official element of national identity," adds David Remes in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Reciting the Pledge thus became a religious exercise - not because it refers to 'God,' but because it is a pledge."
Not every organization strongly opposed to religious activities in public schools is opposed to the Pledge. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the National Education Association says even with the reference to God, the Pledge is a patriotic observance rather than a religious exercise.
Using the words " 'under God' does not convert the Pledge into a state-sponsored profession of religious belief," writes Robert Chanin in the NEA brief. "Rather, the words are best understood as a reflection of the simple historical fact that the founders believed in a supreme being, and that their belief led them to dedicate the nation to the fundamental secular precept that all men have unalienable rights to liberty and justice," Mr. Chanin says.