Outrage is reverberating across the political spectrum over a federal appeals court panel ruling that it is unconstitutional for schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Some scholars say the ruling, which takes issue with the phrase "one nation under God," will likely be overturned by the US Supreme Court or reversed by the full Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals. "I would bet an awful lot on that," says Laurence Tribe, a Harvard University legal scholar.
Wednesday's 2-1 ruling was in response to an atheist's bid to keep his second-grade daughter from being exposed to religion in school. Circuit Judge Alfred Goodwin said leading schoolchildren in a pledge that says the United States is "one nation under God" is as objectionable as making them say "We are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god,' because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion."
In an extraordinary show of bipartisan defiance Thursday the entire Senate showed up for a prayer. And a packed House recited the pledge, with some shouting "under God." President Bush called the ruling "ridiculous." Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota termed it "just nuts."
If allowed to stand, it would bar schoolchildren from reciting the pledge at least in the nine Western states the Ninth Circuit covers. It doesn't take effect for several months.
The court, known for its activist liberal opinions, took up the case after a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit brought by Michael Newdow, a Sacramento physician with a law degree who represented himself. "This is my parental right to say I don't want the government telling my child what to believe in," says Mr. Newdow, who has been barraged with threatening phone calls.
The US Supreme Court has never squarely addressed the issue. It has said schools can require teachers to lead the pledge, but ruled students can't be punished for not reciting it.
The Ninth Circuit panel said President Eisenhower alluded to the religious aspects of the pledge in June 1954, when he signed the insertion of the "under God" phrase into law, referring to "the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty," Eisenhower said.
Dissenting Judge Ferdinand Fernandez chided the decision, writing that under Newdow's theory of the Constitution "we will soon find ourselves prohibited from using our album of patriotic songs in many public settings."
Congress approved the addition of "under God" at the height of the cold war after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic men's organization. Americans deluged Congress with mail supporting the change.
The pledge itself has deeper roots. It is attributed to socialist editor and clergyman Francis Bellamy, who first published it in 1892 in a children's magazine to bolster the utopian ideal that the middle class could fashion a planned political and social economy, equitable for all.
Until World War II, millions of schoolchildren recited the pledge with a stiff outstretched arm reminiscent of a Nazi salute, but with the palm perpendicular to the ground and fingers pointing to the flag.