Under God Divides the Indivisible

By Dority, Barbara | The Humanist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview
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Under God Divides the Indivisible


Dority, Barbara, The Humanist


All of us who comprise the 14 percent of Americans--that's about thirty million--who hold no religious or god beliefs should be pleased and profoundly gratified by the courageous June 26, 2002, U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Newdow v. U.S. Congress regarding the phrase under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Added to the pledge in 1954 specifically to counteract "Godless communism," these words have always been a blatant unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause. After forty-eight years, we humanists can now feel, however briefly, included as Americans. In its eloquent ruling, the court explicitly acknowledges our previous exclusion:

 
   The pledge, as currently codified, is an impermissible government 
   endorsement of religion because it sends a message to unbelievers that they 
   are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an 
   accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members 
   of the political community. 

Later, the court reviews the legislative history and quotes from the 1954 act, which leaves no doubt about the purpose of the added phrase under God:

 
   The Act's sole purpose was to advance religion.... This language reveals 
   that the purpose of the 1954 Act was to take a position on the question of 
   theism, namely, to support the existence and moral authority of God, while 
   "denying ... atheistic and materialistic concepts." Such a purpose runs 
   counter to the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government's 
   endorsement or advancement not only of one particular religion at the 
   expense of other religions, but also of religion at the expense of 
   atheism.... The [U.S. Supreme] Court has unambiguously concluded that the 
   individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces 
   the right to select any religious faith or none at all. 

Every American should read the full text of the Ninth Circuit's decision (available online at www.ca9.uscourts.gov/opinions) and educate themselves about this issue. The displays of ignorance and intolerance and the arrogant posturing of politicians have been truly appalling. Why is it so difficult to understand that we might just as well be reciting, "One nation under Buddha, David Koresh, Allah, or Zeus" or "One nation under Wall Street" (or, as comedian Robin Williams suggests, "One nation under Canada")?

Despite repetitive and misleading sound-bites, pledging allegiance to the flag has not been declared unconstitutional. Many of the print media got it right, clearly identifying Congress' 1954 addition as the unconstitutional part of the pledge. However, most of the TV pundits and so-called news journalists parroted the right-wing's misrepresentation that the entire pledge was declared unconstitutional--thus erroneously fanning the flames and fomenting public hysteria over the court's decision. But the court was unmistakably clear that the words under God are the problem, ruling that "the policy and practice of teacher-led recitation of the pledge, with the added words included, violate the Establishment Clause."

And if the statement that the United States is a nation "under God" is not an endorsement of religious ideology, then nothing is. Actually, it is that and more. In the context of the pledge, citizens are asked to pledge allegiance to the concept of a God-ruled nation. As the court wrote:

 
   To recite the pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is 
   to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, 
   indivisibility, liberty, justice, and--since 1954--monotheism. The text of 
   the official pledge, codified in federal law, impermissibly takes a 
   position with respect to the purely religious question of the existence and 
   identity of God.... The school district's practice of teacher-led 
   recitation of the pledge aims to inculcate in students a respect for the 
   ideals set forth in the pledge, and thus amounts to state endorsement of 
   these ideals. 

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