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June 14, 2005

The Fight to Pledge Allegiance “Under God”
by Jon M. Sweeney

Did you know that the phrase “under God” was added to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance as recently as 1954? Congress passed a measure that year, adding the two simple words, in order to symbolically mark a difference between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The pledge itself was written in Boston by a socialist Baptist minister (no typos there!) by the name of Francis Bellamy. It was first published in a periodical called “The Youth’s Companion” in 1891.

In an interview published in The Boston Globe on May 29 of this year, Prof. Richard J. Ellis, author of a new book, To the Flag, explained: “[Bellamy believed] that Americans were too focused on getting rich, rather than serving their country…. [He] was put to work helping the magazine promote a one-day event in which the American flag would be flown over every public school in the country. The idea was to combat the atomizing effects of industrial capitalism by encouraging patriotism. Bellamy wrote the pledge as part of a program of events for schools to follow on that particular day. He had no idea it would become an institution.”

California atheist Michael Newdow understands very well that the phrase “under God” is a recent addition to the Pledge of Allegiance. Newdow brought a civil suit on behalf, he said, of his third grade daughter, who he did not want subjected to the peer pressure of pledging “under God.” The courts in California—where the case was heard—ruled in 2002 that reciting the Pledge in public schools was unconstitutional, a violation of the separation of church and state. Appeals of that ruling finally made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June of last year, the high court refused to hear the case on a technicality; they ruled unanimously (8-0) that Newdow lacked legal standing to bring the case, since he was in a custody battle for his daughter.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, although agreeing with the majority opinion, argued that the high court should nevertheless have heard the constitutional arguments. He published his opinion, for the record: “To give the parent of such a child a sort of ‘heckler's veto’ over a patriotic ceremony willingly participated in by other students, simply because the Pledge of Allegiance contains the descriptive phrase ‘under God,’ is an unwarranted extension of the establishment clause, an extension which would have the unfortunate effect of prohibiting a commendable patriotic observance.”

Newdow’s case has nevertheless not died away. He continues to argue—on the Internet and in speeches throughout the U.S.—that the pledge is made into a prayer by the phrase, “under God,” when it should simply remain a recitation of patriotism. Last year, before the Supreme Court’s ruling, many editorials in newspapers around the country agreed with Newdow. The Dallas/Fort Worth Star Telegram, for instance, argued pithily: “[The Founding Fathers] would have abhorred any attempt to transform a right into a rite.”
Newdow filed a new lawsuit on January 3, 2005. He is, once again, challenging the words “under God” in the Pledge. On his website
(www.restorethepledge.com) he writes, “Having had a practice run all the way to the Supreme Court, and with the opinions of three justices already released, this litigation should be even stronger than the last.” The new suit was filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Eastern California (Newdow lives in Sacramento). He and his supporters plan to file additional cases in other circuits, as well.

Restorethepledge.com includes an invitation to those who agree with Newdow to compose a brief essay of 600 or fewer words that would be included in a future “Friend of the Court brief.” Each essay is intended to chronicle “the adverse emotions and effects those words have caused to real individuals.”

The Restore-the-Pledge campaign does not appear to be gaining much ground, however. Newdow’s ongoing legal efforts are little known outside of Sacramento, and one wonders how successful he will be in fighting a fifty-year institution as long as the red states outnumber the blue. Yet, regardless of the outcome of present litigation, the debate is healthy in our ongoing attempt to balance personal liberties and public good. As far as the charges of state-sponsored religion, one wonders where to draw the line—pledges, currency slogans, the use of the Bible in courtroom oaths. Would eliminating all references to a higher power ever be desirable, or possible? And what of the effect? Does our use of these slogans and symbols create an expectation of belief, and, if so, at what point does that expectation impinge on the rights of those who don't believe?

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His latest book is

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