Arguments against ruling on pledge just don’t hold up
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling, on June 26, that the forced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional shocked most of us. Even more shocking, though, was the thought that an element seemingly inherent to American life could be subject to such scrutiny.
Hence, it was not as surprising (though unfortunate) to find generally homogenized civic, and particularly media, opposition to the ruling. Most unfortunate, however, were the vindictive manifestations such opposition has taken on.
One may look no further than the situation of Michael Newdow, the plaintiff-appellant of the case, to observe the actions of supposed defenders of a nation “under God.” Amid the midnight death threats, the e-mails labeling him a communist, and his ostracism, in defense of the phrase “under God,” we have overlooked the more important “with liberty and justice for all.” But the true tragedy is that the most vocal applauders of the court’s ruling, the vanguards of these marginal masses, have been, for the most part, ignored.
In fact, it is precisely biblical scholars and theologians who have noted the oftentimes horrific consequences of failing to pay heed to the importance of a secular state. Americans United for Separation of Church & State (AUSCS), headed by the Rev. Barry Lynn, has served as a watchdog for this key element to genuine democracy, while noticing that the phrase “under God” is not only unconstitutional, but is superfluous in light of elementary analysis showing a non-theistic pledge was able to sustain America through the Great Depression and two world wars.
Further consideration, though, should be given to the pledge’s writer, Francis Bellamy, a Baptist Socialist minister, who rejected the idea of including a reference to his God and was even discouraged from including the word “equality,” because the superintendents of education would strike down any notion of equality for women or blacks.
Despite this background, a set of continual and mundane arguments ring forth from antidisestablishmentarians (i.e., defenders of a state-endorsed religion). The predominant is the fabrication that atheists are “imposing their beliefs upon everyone else.” In contrast, the insertion of “under God” in 1954 at the urging of the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic organization) after 63 years of an agnostic pledge epitomizes the concept of “imposing beliefs.”
Conversely, the 9th Circuit Court ruled according to the truism that silence is secular. The key, and often misunderstood, distinction that must be made here is the difference between an agnostic pledge, one that’s blind to any absolute theistic stance, and an atheistic pledge, one that would mandate a “one nation under NO God” clause in the pledge. And considering that atheists are the most underrepresented (as there is not a single known major politician who is an atheist) minority, they should be given a pat on the back for not using this opportunity to imbue the pledge with such rhetoric.
Many media representatives have rebuked this analysis, noting that the Declaration of Independence makes direct references to a God, which supposedly justifies a theistic America. These critics have been led astray because the Declaration of Independence was never a government-sponsored official document like the Constitution, which makes no references to a God whatsoever.
Critics continue that “under God” doesn’t establish a state religion, as it is too general. Many analysts have labeled the recitation of this phrase as “rote civic action.” Admittedly, the implication of the establishment clause (as the Bill of Rights states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) invites further consideration of the ruling.
A more overlooked, and probably more important, criterion should be paid attention to in this circumstance, which is the free exercise clause of the Constitution (as the Bill of Rights continues, “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”), at which point the unconstitutionality of “under God” becomes more understandable. For the free exercise of anyone who thinks independently is stripped at the point where she or he is required to recite such language, as was the circumstance of the plaintiff’s daughter. On the other hand, nothing in the pledge ruling establishes a religion nor prohibits free exercise, yet still allows individuals voluntarily to say the phrase, whereas a pledge with “under God” undermines both.
Although this article is published a month after the ruling, it is in many ways early rather than late, considering it is doubtful that we have heard the last of these two disputed words. As Congress rushed to pass a resolution voicing their disapproval the day after the ruling, for members, the 9th Circuit has become a candy dispenser of campaign fodder.
While the ruling is sure to be challenged, and even more surely overturned upon the grounds of raw emotion and misinterpretation, the criticism that this ruling truly deserves is that it was 48 years late.
Larry S. McGrath, 17, is a Grass Valley resident. He will be a junior at Nevada Union High School in the fall. Write him in care of Youth Page, The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, CA 95945.
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