Talking about God is no longer religious

March 11, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

In the case of Newdow v. Rio Linda, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled that talking about “God” is not religious talk.  The case was brought on behalf of an atheist public school student who was required to recite the current version of the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the phrase “under God.”

Image by Crafteepics at Dreamstime (with permission)

Image by Crafteepics at Dreamstime (with permission)

The Majority Opinion holds that the phrase “under God” in the current version of the Pledge of Allegiance is not a personal affirmation of the speaker’s belief in God. Further, the Majority plays a shell game, pretending that is is required to analyze the entire Pledge (which it finds to be primarily patriotic) rather than having the courage to look at the offending phrase “under God,” which was added by Congress in 1954, during America’s McCarthyite period. Here’s the Majority’s shell game in action (from p. 3877):

We hold that the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause because Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism and that the context of the Pledge—its wording as a whole, the preamble to the statute, and this nation’s history—demonstrate that it is a predominantly patriotic exercise. For these reasons, the phrase “one Nation under God” does not turn this patriotic exercise into a religious activity.

I will emphasize points raised by the Dissent because the Dissent is coherent and honest, in contrast with the disingenuous Majority opinion. The Dissent begins at page 3930 with an elaborate table of contents.  Don’t trust me on any of these points:  read the opinion for yourself and you’ll see that I’m not exaggerating in the least.

What are the facts of the case? I’ll refer to the case description given by Judge Reinhardt’s Dissent (from page 3976):

When the five-year-old Roe child arrived for her first day of kindergarten, her teacher, a state employee, asked the young students to stand, to place their hands on their hearts, and to pledge their allegiance to “one nation, under God.” Neither young Roe nor her mother, however, believe in God. Thus, having already learned that she should not tell a lie, young Roe simply stood silently, as her classmates recited in unison the version of the Pledge that requires its proponents to express their belief in God. Everyday thereafter, the children filed into school, and each morning they recited an oath of allegiance to “one nation, under God” — an oath that undeniably “requires affirmation of a belief and an attitude of mind” to which young Roe does not subscribe: a belief that God exists and is watching over our nation. Cf. W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 633 (1943). For eight months, the five-year-old Roe faced, every morning, the daily “dilemma of participating” in the amended Pledge, with all that implies about her religious beliefs, or of being cast as a protester for her silent refusal. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 593 (1992). On some days she quietly endured the gaze of her teacher and her classmates as she refused to say the Pledge, standing in silence as the classroom’s lone dissenter; on others she walked out of the room and stood in the hallway by herself, physically removed from the religious “adherents” — the “favored members of the [classroom] community,” Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 310 (2000), who were able to swear their fealty to the United States without simultaneously espousing a state-sponsored belief in God that was antithetical to their personal religious views. In April, 2005, Jan Roe filed this lawsuit on behalf of herself and her child. Her claim is straightforward: The Constitution of the United States, a nation founded by exiles who crossed an ocean in search of freedom from state-imposed religious beliefs, prohibits the purposefully designed, teacherled, state-sponsored daily indoctrination of her child with a religious belief that both she and her daughter reject.

The Majority Opinion also blunders by incorrectly stating that “under God” is not a religious phrase because it was not allegedly not inserted in the Pledge for religious reasons. The Majority Opinion makes the laughable claim that the phrase “under God” is simply “a reference to the historical and political underpinnings of our nation,” and that its purpose is to remind us that our government is a “limited government.”

The Dissent responded to this point at page 3931:

Were this a case to be decided on the basis of the law or the Constitution, the outcome would be clear. Under no sound legal analysis adhering to binding Supreme Court precedent could this court uphold state-directed, teacher-led, daily recitation of the “under God” version of the Pledge of Allegiance by children in public schools. It is not the recitation of the Pledge as it long endured that is at issue here, but its recitation with the congressionally added two words, “under God” — words added in 1954 for the specific religious purpose, among others, of indoctrinating public schoolchildren with a religious belief. The recitations of the amended version as conducted by the Rio Linda Union and other school districts fail all three of the Court’s Establishment Clause tests.

Was the phrase “under God” added to the Pledge in 1954 for religious reasons?   There is no doubt about this.  The idea to insert “under God” began in the pews of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church—The Dissent provides loads of citations and details (see, for example, p. 3944). How did the phrase “under God” get into the Pledge? Congress inserted it in 1954. On page 3957 of the opinion, the Dissent presents the all-telling details. The Dissent explains starting at page 4008:

Not only was the message underlying the new Pledge clear — “true” Americans believe in God and non-believers are decisively un-American — but so too was its intended audience: America’s schoolchildren.

The legislators who set out to insert the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance were fully aware that in 1954 the original Pledge was a commonplace scholastic ritual. Indeed, a primary rationale for inserting the explicitly religious language into the Pledge of Allegiance, as opposed to into some other national symbol or verse, was that the Pledge was an ideal vehicle for the indoctrination of the country’s youth. The amendment’s chief proponents in Congress were not at all bashful about their intentions. Speaking from the well of the Senate, Senator Wiley endorsed the bill by saying, “What better training for our youngsters could there be than to have them, each time they pledge allegiance to Old Glory, reassert their belief, like that of their fathers and their fathers before them, in the all-present, all-knowing, all-seeing, allpowerful Creator.” Id. at 5915 (emphases added). Senator Ferguson, who authored the Senate bill, agreed that “we should remind the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the other young people of America, who take [the] pledge of allegiance to the flag more often than do adults, that it is not only a pledge of words but also of belief.” Id. at 6348 (emphasis added). In the House, Congressman Rabaut, the original author of the first bill to amend the Pledge, declared that “from their earliest childhood our children must know the real meaning of America,” a country whose “way of life . . . sees man as a sentient being created by God and seeking to know His will.” Id. at 1700 (emphases added). His colleague, Congressman Angell, argued that “the schoolchildren of America” should understand that the Pledge of Allegiance “pledge[s] our allegiance and faith in the Almighty God.”

In conclusion:

An examination of that text and the plain meaning of its words clearly reveals the explicitly religious purpose motivating the amendment to the Pledge. The words “under God” are undeniably religious, and the addition to the Pledge of Allegiance of words with so plain a religious meaning cannot be said, simply because it might assist the majority in obtaining its objective, to be for a purpose that is predominantly secular. The words certainly were not inserted for the purpose of “reinforc[ing] the idea that our nation is founded upon the concept of a limited government.” As I have stated earlier in this dissent and as I reiterate here, the suggestion by the majority that the purpose of inserting the phrase “under God” into the Pledge was to remind us that we have a “limited government” finds no support in the record and is wholly without merit.

And why is it that the Majority Opinion is pretending that this case is about the effect of the entire Pledge rather than the two-word phrase that is clearly at issue?   To avoid the obvious.  Here’s what would have followed from honest and competent jurisprudence (again, this is from the Dissent):

[The earlier U.S. Supreme Court case of Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1984)] explicitly requires us to compare the original statute to the amended form and to examine what the amendment has added. Where the addition is religious, the addition must be invalidated. Here, Wallace unquestionably requires us to strike down as unconstitutional the state-directed, teacher-led daily recitation of the “under God” language in the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools. Omitting the two words added by the 1954 amendment and returning to the recitation of the secular version of the Pledge that was used in public schools for decades prior to the adoption of the amendment would cure the violation of the Establishment Clause at issue here.

Newdow v. Rio Linda would seem to suggest two things to those who take the logic of the Majority Opinion seriously. First of all, stare decisis is the sacred foundation of our entire legal system–except when it is not (for instance, when the Newdow Court intentionally skates around the Wallace decision), and that the principle of stare decisis can be cavalierly switched on and off by an appellate judge.  Second, it’s time to revoke the tax-exempt status of all churches that talk about “God” because such talk is no longer religious.

The bottom line, though, is that Newdow is simply the latest in a long line of dishonest Pledge of Allegiance decisions.  For example, see this earlier post on the federal district court case of Freedom from Religion Foundation v. The Hanover School District, where the Court claimed that making the children recite the Pledge each day is for the purpose of “teaching them history.”


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Category: American Culture, children, Civil Rights, Court Decisions, Current Events, Education, History, hypocrisy, ignorance, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Y'know, if you think about it, maybe it never has been in this country. If you look at it from a purely nationalistic point of view, all such oaths have nothing to do with what you personally believe, but only about public affirmation that you're "part of the club"—and in this country, despite all attempts to the contrary, being a "good christian" is part of our national identity. God and country in this context are one and the same, because it's a pledge that you are reliable, that you won't rock the boat, that you will defend ALL aspects of what the powers-that-be claim are important.

    Because there are no laws requiring any other observation on the part of an individual of a religious nature.

    Think about it. No one is required by law to attend church. No one is required to prove religious affiliation when applying for even government jobs. It is a purely verbal affirmation that among the other aspects we see ourselves as, this is one of them. And it's a secular claim in that case.

    Just a thought. Because, y'know, all court cases that have validated an atheist's right not to have religion shoved down his or her throat, the oath to tell the truth is still in place.

    "So help me god, there is no god."

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    Is it just me, or is swearing an oath different from "talking about"? I'd be happy if there were more talking about God, and less rote supplication.

  3. Good point, Dan. As far as that goes, though, I find all oaths offensive, whether of a religious nature or otherwise. They are no guarantor of anything and serious violation of personal conscience.

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