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 be construed 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.

It's this assertion--that the pledge has relegated the use of God's name to a nonreligious realm--that riles Newdow's religious backers. "The government says [the phrase] isn't religious at all, that it's about history and demographics," said Douglas Laycock, the University of Texas law professor who represents the 32 clergy in favor of Newdow. "That's a transparent lie."

In addition to the 32 clergy members backing Newdow, the court has received a joint brief arguing for the removal of "under God" by 19 leading scholars, including Boston University's religion department chair Stephen Prothero, Columbia University Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, and Vanderbilt University New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine.

"Some supporting the phrase argue that it is simply an 'acknowledgment' of America's religious heritage," Levine wrote in an email to Beliefnet. "If the phrase is merely ceremonial, then it becomes a trivialization of the Deity. If the pledge is recited in a rote manner--and since it is recited most often by children in school settings this is always a possibility--then we risk taking the name of the Lord in vain."

The Anti-Defamation League and a group of Buddhist centers across the United States also take Newdow's side--along with secular groups like American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But most religious groups who have gotten involved in the Pledge case support the government's position. The American Jewish Congress argues that including "under God" in the pledge is an example of "ceremonial deism." The Pledge's motives are secular, the group says, and the controversial phrase is not equivalent to school prayer.

A brief submitted jointly by Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Alliance Defense Fund, agrees. "The Pledge is not a prayer or any other type of religious exercise," it states. "Recitation of the pledge does not have the purpose of endorsing or disapproving of religion."

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, suggests that "under God" doesn't trivialize religion--because the pledge of allegiance is not God's primary venue. "We don't want God to be just a motto," said Shafran, whose organization filed a brief under the auspices of the National Jewish Commission on Law & Public Affairs. "But God doesn't have a full impact in that context.

"People should not [be satisfied] with looking at their dollar bills or saying the pledge," he added. "They should relate to God in a more comprehensive way."

For clergymen like Pastor Kevin James, though, taking God in or out of the Pledge won't solve the country's spiritual ills. "Including the phrase hasn't made us more religious and hasn't made us better," said James, pastor of Ogden Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Utah and director of legislative affairs for the Nevada/Utah Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists. "We're a materialistic society," he continued. "There's a problem spiritually with people in America. God's already out."

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