2016-07-27
WASHINGTON -- As the White House, conservative Christians and school board officials anticipate the arguments and outcome of the debate over "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, atheists and a range of religious minorities also are holding their collective breath.

In the last month, pantheists, Buddhists and humanists have added their views to the files at the U.S. Supreme Court as the high court prepares for a March 24 hearing on the most closely watched case dealing with the intersection of church and state this term.

Michael Newdow, an atheist who sued an Elk Grove, Calif., public school district where his daughter was required to join her teacher in saying the controversial two-word phrase, said he's not surprised that more than 20 friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed in support of his arguments. He feels the words added 50 years ago to the 112-year-old pledge make it unconstitutional.

"I figured they'd have the same feelings because it turns people into outsiders," Newdow told Religion News Service.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in his favor in June 2002 but stayed its decision, so schoolchildren in the affected Western states continue to recite the pledge with the words he opposes.

Newdow, who has joint custody of his daughter with the 9-year-old's mother, argues that the school district is placing itself in the midst of family and religious decisions where it does not belong.

"The mother says there is a God," he said. "The father says there isn't a god. They're taking sides and they're interfering with my relationship with my daughter."

Like some of those represented by the burgeoning number of amicus briefs, Newdow continues to declare his patriotism through recitation of the pledge, but without the two words in question.

"I say it out of cadence from that point on and I'm turned into an outsider," he said.

Paul Harrison, president of the World Pantheist Movement, said children of pantheists must make similar choices.

"They might opt out and take their chance of consequences," he said. "They might recite it and just keep their mouths shut during those words or they might just pretend to be like everybody else. ... They're not very nice options, which is why we'd like to see those words removed."

His organization, which was incorporated in 1998, is speaking up for the first time in a legal brief to the Supreme Court. Its members revere the universe and consider nature to be sacred, gathering for such occasions as a viewing of monarch butterflies in a eucalyptus grove in Santa Barbara, Calif.

People familiar with Buddhist organizations say it is also unusual for them to take a legal stand of this sort.

"You should be allowed (to be) both a Buddhist and a patriotic American and what the pledge does in its current form is it forces these children to choose," said Ken Pierce, a lawyer for a Wall Street firm that usually represents banks and filed an amicus brief for Buddhist organizations as part of its pro-bono practice.

The Hawaii State Federation of Honpa Hongwanji Lay Associations, one of the almost two dozen Buddhist groups on whose behalf Pierce filed an amicus brief, wrote President Bush in September 2002 to inform him that they passed a resolution in support of the Ninth Circuit's ruling.

Bush responded that he intended to stick to the current language, according to a letter appended to another brief filed jointly by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Religious Liberty.

"When we pledge allegiance to One Nation under God, our citizens participate in an important American tradition of humbly seeking the wisdom and blessing of Divine Providence," Bush replied in a letter two months later.

Atheists are among the groups favoring Newdow that are more familiar with legal battles over church-state separation.

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said she can't see how the Supreme Court can uphold "under God" in the pledge based on the legal arguments.

"They could come up with saying it's ceremonial deism," said Johnson, whose organization filed a friend-of-the court brief saying the two words in the pledge infringe upon the rights of every atheist.

"They could come up with any other cockamamie thing just to find an excuse to keep it, a rationalization to keep the words in the pledge."

Rob Sherman, an atheist activist in the Chicago area, also filed an amicus brief for reasons that, like Newdow's, are personal and parental. He sued an Illinois public school district in 1988 because he thought it was unconstitutional for his then-first-grade son to have to say "one nation under God." Sherman lost that case when an appeals court found in 1992 that the pledge recitation was voluntary and therefore constitutional.

His son, Richard Sherman, is a university senior who plans to become a public high school science teacher.

"He wants to establish a creationist-free zone at our local public school," the elder Sherman said of his son.

"It's time for the Supreme Court to recognize that the phrase `under God' does indeed have immense religious significance and that it is wrong for public school teachers to advance a discriminatory purpose by leading public schoolchildren in mocking atheists."

Other supporters of Newdow range from humanists to monotheists who support the rights of religious -- and nonreligious -- minorities.

The American Humanist Association and other humanistic groups said the pledge "coerces polytheist and nontheist children to follow the state-endorsed religion." Clergy in monotheistic religions, including Interfaith Alliance President Welton Gaddy and Harvard University divinity professor Harvey Cox, describe arguments on the other side that the pledge is historical or secular as "strained theory."

Despite their pleas, there are more briefs on the other side, including one on behalf of close to 70 Senate and House members who argue that "atheistic sensibilities" do not compel the courts to remove the two words in question.

Atheists and others have the the right to not believe and to not say the pledge, but they can't control what others wish to do, said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, who wrote the brief on behalf of the members of Congress.

"They don't have the right to exercise a veto," he said.

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