comes under scrutiny
Supreme Court debates whether Pledge of Allegiance should
continue to use the phrase under God.
WASHINGTON Not long after the Supreme Court came
to order Wednesday with the invocation, God save
the United States and this honorable court, the
justices were deep in a wrenching argument over whether
millions of public schoolchildren may continue pledging
allegiance to one nation under God.
The religious reference in the Pledge of Allegiance,
a California atheist argued, is an unconstitutional
government promotion of religion in his daughters
I am an atheist. I dont believe in God,
Michael Newdow told the justices and a rapt, packed
courtroom, arguing with passion and personal asides
unusual for the dry, cerebral high court. Every
school morning, my child is asked to stand up, face
that flag, put her hand over her heart and say that
her father is wrong.
On the other side, Bush administration lawyer Theodore
Olson said the pledge reflects Americas religious
It is an acknowledgment of the religious basis
of the framers of the Constitution, who believed not
only that the right to revolt, but that the right to
vest power in the people to create a government ...
came as a result of religious principles, Olson
That view was loudly represented outside the court,
with scores of demonstrators reciting the pledge and
carrying signs that read, In God We Trust.
The high court is expected to rule by summer.
Newdow, a lawyer, made the rare and usually foolhardy
decision to argue his own case before the court. He
withstood the justices vigorous questions, and
based on their smiles and glances, it seemed he had
won their respect.
Newdow had prevailed in one respect before Wednesdays
argument began. He had asked Justice Antonin Scalia
to step aside because of remarks that seemed to prejudge
the case. Scalia complied.
If the rest of the court agrees with Newdow now, it
could declare that the phrase under God
breaches the figurative wall separating church and state.
That would mean an end to the Pledge of Allegiance as
generations of American schoolchildren have known it.
Or, as several justices indicated during arguments,
the court could rule that the words are a benign and
ceremonial part of a traditional, patriotic exercise.
We have so many references to God in our daily
lives today, Justice Sandra Day OConnor
told Newdow, including the courts own, familiar
opening call.If the pledge cannot refer to God, the
justices asked, what about the phrase In God We
Trust on U.S. currency? What about dating laws
and government proclamations with the notation, in
the year of our Lord?
Newdows answer: Nobody is making his 9-year-old
say In God We Trust or singling her out
as an oddball if she refuses.The Supreme Court already
has ruled that schoolchildren cannot be forced to say
the pledge, but Newdow says that is not good enough.
When a teacher, paid by taxpayers, stands up and leads
the pledge, it is unrealistic to expect small children
to opt out, Newdow said.
Imagine youre the one atheist with 30 Christians,
Newdow is almost single-handedly fighting not only his
daughters Sacramento-area school, but also the
Bush administration and a majority of American public
opinion. The girls mother also opposes his effort.
Almost nine in 10 people said the under God
reference belongs in the pledge, according to an Associated
Press-Ipsos poll released this week.
Newdow and supporters such as the American Civil Liberties
Union also must contend with the courts own statements
about the pledge in the past.
Olson pointed to 14 instances where various Supreme
Court justices have endorsed the wording, religious
reference and all.
Congress inserted the words under God in
1954, at the height of the Cold War, to distinguish
the religious tradition of the United States from the
official atheism of the Soviet Union. Some defenders
of the pledge argue that even with those beginnings,
the passage of time has laundered the words of their
Newdow won in San Franciscos 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals, which ruled that teachers are barred
from leading the pledge, with its reference to God,
in public schools.
The Supreme Court repeatedly has banned prayers and
official religious exercises from public schools, and
the 9th Circuit relied on those previous cases in its
Should the high court uphold the decision, public schools
could still recite a pledge with its pre-1954 wording,
one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice
Before the high court decides the meat of the case,
it must determine a crucial procedural issue. The Bush
administration and other pledge supporters claim Newdow
does not have the proper legal footing to bring his
case because he does not have full legal custody of
Newdow was never married to the girls mother,
and the precise details of their custody arrangement
are complex and changeable. Sandra Banning, a Christian
and a supporter of the Pledges wording, has legal
custody and the right to make decisions about her daughters
education. She attended the hearing Wednesday.
The 9th Circuit said Newdow nonetheless had standing
to challenge the pledge, but the Supreme Court could
disagree. The justices, if they choose so, could decide
only that Newdow cannot bring the suit, without tackling
the tough constitutional question.