Mere hours after a federal appeals court held that it was unconstitutional for a school district to force children to recite a Pledge of Allegiance that contains the words "under God," the U.S. Senate voted 99-0 to condemn the decision. President Bush denounced it as "ridiculous." And Jerry Falwell, the noted legal scholar, said it was "probably the worst ruling of any federal appellate court in history."
The press was no kinder. The front page of the New York Post pronounced the decision "God-Awful" and promised a "Holy War," while The San Francisco Chronicle opined that the decision was a case of "[c]ommon sense" being "trumped by too doctrinaire thinking." Even those editorialists who profess to believe in the separation of church and state had harsh words for the ruling. The Washington Post fretted that it would "generate unnecessary political battles." Meanwhile, The New York Times declared it a trivial issue, arguing that "[i]n the pantheon of real First Amendment concerns, this one is off the radar screen."
But in fact, the issue is far from trivial. Indeed, the intensity of the public reaction the to ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is the best evidence that the court reached the right result.
The Pledge of Allegiance can be a stirring and patriotic ritual. But in a schoolroom setting, it can also be coercive--and the reaction to the court's decision shows why. Anyone who dares to question the orthodoxy of the pledge, whether for reasons of conscience or religious conviction, is sure to be ridiculed--or worse, branded as unpatriotic--by America's political, religious and civic leaders.
There's nothing wrong with asking students to begin their day with the pledge or similar patriotic rituals. After all, one of the purposes of the educational system is to inculcate good civic values in our youth. But the atmosphere changes when religion becomes part of the mix. When students in an overwhelmingly Christian community gather together each morning to declare their allegiance to their flag and their country "under God," many religious minorities--including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, as well as atheists and agnostics--may well feel that they are being asked to endorse the mainstream religion. And while no one is actually compelled to recite the pledge, the schoolroom is a unique setting: Particularly if a teacher--the adult authority figure whom students are supposed to obey--is leading the pledge, a child may well feel that going along is mandatory. Students who object to the "under God" language--for whatever reason--will often find it easier to go along with the majority than to brand themselves as outsiders.
Liberal critics of the Ninth Circuit's decision--among them The New York Times and The Washington Post-- have followed the lead of Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, who dissented from the Ninth Circuit's ruling. In Judge Fernandez's view, the reference to God in the current version of the Pledge is simply a bit of harmless fluff, a minor bit of "ceremonial deism" that poses no real danger to anyone's religious freedom. But that argument is a little hard to swallow, given the intensity of the public reaction to the Ninth Circuit's decision. If the phrase "under God" is meaningless--a notion that many religious people would vehemently disagree with--then why does it need to be in the pledge at all? And why are so many people so angry about its potential exclusion?
The other arguments in favor of the "under God" language are no more persuasive. It's true, for example, that U.S. currency states, "In God we trust." But no one is forced to trust in God--or even believe in God--before handling money. Similarly, court sessions often begin with the invocation, "God save this honorable court." But in court, no one is ever forced to swear an oath to God; witnesses always have the opportunity to "affirm" their testimony instead.
In his dissent, Judge Fernandez also resorts to the slippery slope argument, suggesting that if schoolchildren do not refer to God in the pledge, "we will soon find ourselves prohibited from using our album of patriotic songs"--including "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful"--in many public settings. But there's no reason why that should be the case. Just because students can't be coerced into invoking the name of God doesn't mean the rest of us aren't free to do so as we please outside the classroom. Students don't begin their day with a ritual singing of "God Bless America" or "America the Beautiful." Instead, those songs typically sung at sporting events and other festive occasions, where attendance is voluntary and there is rarely, if ever, any compulsion to sing.
One more thing to consider: There's no reason that the pledge must include an explicit reference to God. In fact, before 1954, it didn't. Schoolchildren simply pledged their allegiance to "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Congress added the reference to God in 1954 to distinguish the United States from the "godless" Soviet Union. This is precisely the kind of state endorsement of religion that the First Amendment was designed to prohibit. Critics of the decision keep talking about the religious faith of the founders, but the fact is that this country was founded in large part by religious dissenters. Our Bill of Rights was written against a backdrop of centuries of efforts by the British government to control religious beliefs. To this day, Britain has an official state-sponsored religion (the Church of England), which is nominally headed by the Queen.
Just as the founders of this country rejected the idea of a king, so they rejected the idea of an official state religion. Here in the United States, religion is a personal matter, not subject to state control. And if most Americans would stop and think about it for a moment, they would agree that they prefer to keep things that way. Who really wants to have Congress writing prayers and weighing in on questions of faith?
The Ninth Circuit's decision has wrongly been described as holding that the Pledge of Allegiance itself is unconstitutional. But schools can include the Pledge as part of their daily student routine. What they can't do is force students to adopt particular religious beliefs. And that shouldn't be a controversial position. After all, religious freedom is part of the "liberty" that the pledge refers to. It's a sad commentary on American society that so many of our leaders have lost sight of that fact.