Beliefnet
When Michael Newdow, the nation's most famous atheist, argued in the Supreme Court March 24 that the court should strike the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, he didn't have the support of his school-age daughter on whose behalf he brought, and won, his original case. But he did have the support of Rev. Bruce Prescott.

The Southern Baptist pastor from Ogden, Utah says siding with Newdow is not as strange as it seems. "I'm not siding with the atheist," said Prescott, Executive Director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. "I'm siding with the Ten Commandments."

Prescott is one of a number of American clergy and religious leaders who have come out in favor of Newdow, claiming that including "under God" in the pledge actually detracts from the nation's piety. Thirty-two individual Christian and Jewish clergy members, along with the Unitarian Universalist Association, have jointly filed an amicus brief agreeing that the words are unnecessary.

Many other religious groups, from the Christian Legal Society to the American Jewish Congress to the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, want to see "under God" stay, and have submitted their own amicus briefs. But the clergy who support Newdow say they are waging a religious battle for God--in whom Newdow doesn't believe. "These amici are concerned both about the religious liberty of persons who adhere to faith traditions other than their own, and about government undermining true religious faith by using religion for political purposes," their brief states.

The brief argues, among other things, that repeating "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school runs the risk of rendering the words meaningless. "If the religious portion of the Pledge is not intended as a serious affirmation of faith," the brief states, "then every day, government asks millions of school children to take the name of the Lord in vain."

"To have kids expressing a theological principle at 7 A.M. over the loudspeaker is not a serious way to do it," said Rabbi Dan Fink, one of the amici and leader of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, Idaho. "It is not that we don't want God in our lives. We just don't want [him] trivialized."

"If the name of God is truly significant," explains Rev. Prescott, "then Newdow has got a case."

The original Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, did not include "under God." The words were added in 1954 by a congressional act, following a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, and a sermon by Rev. George M. Docherty, pastor of the church that President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended in Washington D.C. Both Congress and the president thought adding "under God" would distinguish the U.S. from the Soviet Union. The congressional act declared the words would "deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of communism."

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, which the high court is hearing on appeal after the Ninth Circuit's decision to strike the words, isn't the first case in which the devout have contested the constitutionality of the pledge. In 1943, Jehovah's Witnesses sued, saying their children should not be forced to salute the flag. The Supreme Court, in West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, found in their favor.

The petitioner in the current case, the Elk Grove Unified School District in California, where Newdow's nine-year-old daughter attends school, argues that Newdow, a Sacramento physician and lawyer who holds only partial custody of his child, did not have legal standing to bring the case to court. (His daughter never refused to say the pledge and has said she doesn't mind it.) The school district, supported by the Bush administration, also argues that "under God" does not violate the Constitution's establishment clause, the basis for the separation of church and state. Religion has been so significant to the history of the United States, the petitioners say, that officially acknowledging this in the Pledge of Allegiance is lawful.

"The Pledge is simply a patriotic expression that includes a reference to God," the petitioners' brief states. "The phrase 'under God' is nothing like the clearly religious act of prayer," it continues. "In no way can the Pledge beconstrued to be a supplication for blessings from God nor can it be reasonably argued that it is a communication with God. The Pledge is, quite simply, a patriotic act--not a religious act."

The White House has filed its own briefs, arguing that "under God" is not a religious sentiment. "This Court's Establishment Clause cases have stated time and again that such official acknowledgments of the Nation's religious history and enduring religious character pass constitutional muster," the solicitor general argues.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus