14 September 2005

The Pledge of Allegiance case

I see that a California judge has once again ruled that the "under God" phrase in the pledge is unconstitutional. This ruling, particularly since it comes at a time when the Supreme Court is being reshaped by two vacancies, is going to stir up a great deal of interest in the legal process, in the actions of judges, and in many other aspects of our legal system.

Actually, it's already stirring people up. It only took me a few minutes to find a few interesting posts about this isssue on different blogs. A group called Project 21 issued a press release that attacked the ruling as an example of "judicial activism":
"This is yet another in a series of attacks on the religious traditions on which our nation was founded," said Project 21 member Kevin Martin. "For far too long, the liberals have used our courts as a way to create rules they cannot achieve popularly through an elected, representative legislature. If anything is unconstitutional, it is this vicious display of judicial activism."

After that almost obligatory display of contentless sound and light, the Project 21 press release went on to argue that the reference to God in the Pledge is simply a form of "ceremonial deism", and it is therefore not an unconstitutional establishment of religion. (I personally find it amusing that they argue, in the same press release, that the Pledge of Allegiance represents the "religious traditions on which our nation was founded" and that the pledge is "ceremonial deism" devoid of any real religious implications.)

I really don't have much of a problem with "ceremonial deism". If the Supreme Court wants to open their proceedings with the invocation, "God save the United States of America and this honorable Court," that isn't a big deal for me. As I understand it, they've always done things that way. If so, then I'd have to agree that the tradition is mostly just that - a tradition - and that the religous content is really pretty much secondary. I personally think that putting "In God We Trust" on currency is a bit pointless, but it doesn't reduce the value of the currency in the hands of an atheist, and I don't really think it would be worth the trouble to remove it.

I don't have much of a problem with references to God in historical documents, in old traditions, or in patriotic songs. If Newdow ever sues to keep a school from forcing students to sing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", I would hope he gets his ass laughed out of court. Despite the theistic references in that song, it is an important part of our history, and there are good reasons to expose students to it. The fact of the matter is that even if religion has not officially been important to our nation, it has been very important to many of the people who have shaped our nation, and it is a part of many American traditions. Take, for example, Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving was very much the theistic event. Any explanation of the holiday should mention that. To do anything else would really corrupt the meaning of the event.

This particular case, however, is different. When the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, and when it was adopted in 1942, it did not contain the words "under God". The pledge simply stated, "One nation, indivisable". (They obviously didn't write that part yesterday.) The words "Under God" were added to the pledge in the 1950s, by act of Congress. They were added for a specific purpose: to distinguish the United States and its form of government from the "Godless Communists".

That's not "ceremonial deism". That's not something that is just a historical part of the Pledge. That's not just doing things the way they were always done. That is the United States Congress writing a law that pretty much says that atheists are not as "American" as theists. That is an establishment of religion, pure and simple.

I just hope that more people on the courts have the courage to stand up and say that, no matter how unpopular that may be.


John said...

Good takes on the "God in the public places" issue. As an atheist, I agree with all of your points of where I don't see a problem with invoking "god". I even go further. I don't have a problem, for instance, with communities which provide public areas for Christmas displays. Hell, I know the vast majority of people in those communities are Christians and this is an important holiday to them. Far from forcing religion down my throat, I can either stop and enjoy the pagentry, or continue on my merry way. The Pledge is different for all the reasons you stated AND I'm expected to participate in it and may be subject to scorn or suspicion if I refuse. Worse than for me, is for a child in a classroom. Reason tells us that children are much more subject to peer pressure and would likely face some ugly situations were they to choose not to participate. The questionable words were not there a mere half century ago and should now be removed.

Fernmonkey said...

As a Brit who had to say a prayer twice a day for much of her state education, I have to say that I think conservatives would be REALLY disappointed if they actually got prayer in schools.

Nobody ever thinks about the words in the compulsory prayers.