Court ruling on 'under God' will matter either way
By Kristen Campbell
Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS)–The Supreme Court's decision to consider whether the 1954 addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance is constitutional has religious leaders weighing the possible impact of a court ruling on religious liberty.
The challenge of Michael Newdow, an atheist who objected to recitations of the pledge at his daughter's California public school, received national attention in 2002 when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Congress violated the First Amendment when it added the words “under God.”
In taking the case, the court will engage in a debate older than the nation itself.
The ramifications of its decision would affect the law in almost every state, according to Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice.
The struggle to articulate and safeguard the nation's ideals of religious liberties never has been easy. But in recent years, as Americans have asked judges to define and protect rights constituents believe are articulated in the First Amendment, the battle has grown more emotional.
In the end, some of the war's spoils may not amount to much.
Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said he expects the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals' court decision unanimously.
“It seems to me highly unlikely to impossible that the court will reverse decades of thinking by justices, even though there is no Supreme Court case upholding the pledge,” Haynes said.
“There are many cases that have dicta, or have expressions of opinion by justices about the pledge, about other references to God, such as 'In God We Trust' or 'The Star Spangled Banner.' … Generally, these have been cited as ceremonial deism. And in some cases, justices have even said they have lost any religious significance they might have had. … They are no longer really religious expressions as much as they are sort of historic affirmations of our national identity and so forth.”
Haynes finds the situation ironic.
“Religious people, in my view, win little when they win the right to keep religion as long as it isn't meaningful,” he said. “Efforts to push for acknowledgment of God or religion by the state often end in doing more to harm authentic faith or religious expression than to enhance it.”
But Sekulow said, “It just would be a sad day for this country if we have to remove a phrase that actually arises out of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.”
In his dedication of the Pennsylvania military cemetery, Lincoln said: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln's use of religious rhetoric during a time of national crisis is far from unusual.
“When the nation feels very threatened, when there's high anxiety about the state of the nation and enemies from within and from without threatening the nation, there is always, really, in our history a kind of return to this affirmation of the United States as a nation under God to somehow assuage the anxiety, to somehow recover our strength,” Haynes said.
Such motivations may have played a part in adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in the first place.
In the midst of Cold War concerns about political enemies some lawmakers described as “godless communists,” the Knights of Columbus encouraged Congress to amend the pledge to include the words “under God.”
In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower approved the change and stated, “From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”
If the Supreme Court affirms the decision rendered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, other national expressions of religious sentiment would undoubtedly be challenged, Sekulow and Haynes agreed.
“The political fallout would be profound,” Haynes said. “There would be such a backlash in the country.”
What's more, Haynes said, it could create an environment in which some might seek to amend the First Amendment in an effort to make clear that government can acknowledge God. Such action is unprecedented, Haynes said, and could weaken the country's commitment to religious liberty.
Even those Americans who don't want government involved in religion see these expressions as part of the nation's heritage and identity, Haynes said.
“Taking a stance that basically sanitizes public language, public discourse, of any religious reference is a mistake, as much of a mistake as trying to establish a particular religious confession as the religion of the nation,” said Christopher Viscardi, chairman of the philosophy and theology division at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala.
“If we get into the mindset of forbidding whatever somebody finds offensive, I think the intent as well as the functionality of the Constitution will be lost.”