Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"One Nation Under God" Rendered Constitutional

I selected two articles from the Chicago Tribune that discuss the decision made by the federal appeals court on Thursday regarding the phrase “one nation under god” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” printed on currency. The first article gives a brief history of the case that ruled in 2002 that the phrase was a violation of The Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment (which “prohibits the enactment of a law or official policy that establishes a religion or religious faith”). The Thursday ruling reversed itself, stating that the phrases are not unconstitutional. The second article (a topic piece), is a simplified version of the first and gives different citations of the judges’ rulings.

In these articles, the two main justifications behind the court’s decision are: first, that these phrases do not breach the establishment clause because neither are required practices (students are not forced to recite the pledge, and it is not essential to have the phrase printed on currency) and second, these phrases are not religious but ceremonial and patriotic (similar to arguments made against Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to salute the flag).

Although the first of these may seem easier to support than the second, I’m still not sure I’m sold. The first justification states that neither of these phrases is a government statute and therefore isn’t required by the government. Does this mean that as a result the government can’t forbid them either? This seems to be at odds with the objective of the federal government: to protect people from having their rights violated. But, if they aren’t forced to recite it how are their rights violated? Well, it seems unavoidable to handle money in one’s own country which may, for some, represent part of their identity (their nationality which seems to be embracing religious invocations).

This leads to the second justification: that these aren’t religious phrases but ceremonial and/or patriotic. Although there are several issues at hand here when it comes to defining religious terms or what is religious, it seems counterintuitive to claim that these are not religious terms. Claiming they aren’t religious takes away their fundamental meaning which would give it a ceremonial or patriotic meaning in the first place. Furthermore, to claim that such phrases are “patriotic” seems to mean that there is something about these terms that is fundamental to the nation. I’m not sure that this avoids the complaint made by those who object to the phrases. For me, if these phrases are going to be rendered constitutional it should be justified in other terms than these.


Gavin C. said...

I agree with Bethanie that the justification for ruling these phrases as constitutional should be based on other arguments. To stake the claim that the phrases ‘In God we trust’ and ‘one nation under God’ are not religious phrases is offensive not only to atheists and goddess worshipers, but also to believers in God. This claim is as absurd as the claim made earlier this year that the cross is not a religious symbol. If we are willing to strip the religiosity from the term God, does the term retain any meaning? However, despite the fact that these terms are religious, I do not think the use of them is in violation of the Establishment Clause. The use of these terms is not meant to proselytize for any particular religion, though they do reflect the fact that this country was founded on Christian principles. This is a historical fact, and those of us who get to live in this nation, regardless of our religious or a-religious views, should not be offended by that fact.

Christa L said...

I wonder if the courts considered one argument against using such phrases as "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God," which is that using such phrases gives the impression that a religion is being established even if it isn't. After all, even though "God" is used to refer to the Christian god, in English, it's also a somewhat neutral term referring to any deity. However, it gives the impression to those who cannot use such a neutral term (atheists, polytheists, etc) that they may not receive such equal treatment because they do not buy into that conception of God. There is an implied discrimination even if discrimination doesn't exist.

John S. said...

This is just another chapter in a long list of evidence for the myth of separation. It may be that the sooner we abandon this mistaken belief that we can move on and stop clogging up the court with legislation vainly trying to separate church from state. If we have learned anything in this course it is that the church has successfully injected itself directly and indirectly into jurisprudence on almost every level. Until we as a nation are ready to embrace French style government hostility to religion as it interacts with governmental functions, we may be better off just forgoing this mockery of separation. Between this legislation as well as many of the cases outlined in Ravitch, legislation around separation and establishment tend to be more about hair-splitting than law. If spin, semantics, or re-imagining terms are the tools used to discuss the interpretation of "In God We Trust" and "Under God" then it is not really about the country or the people and is lawyer tricks used by those who want to keep God and Country together. If we are going to do that, we may as well just re-write all our textbooks to reflect this version of American History...oh, Texas already did that.

Dallas M said...

After going back and reading this article again and again, I finally get what this article is about. I believe that the terms “in God we trust” and “one nation under God” deals with patriotism as it promotes the ideology that America has chosen it religious figure. The government could easily take it out these two saying, and as stated they ruled it unconstitutional, but the backlash that might follow behind this from some Americans would be confrontational. I believe that the federal government just doesn’t want to deal with the complaining and protests that would result from patriotic Americans and make the government in general look worse than it already is.

Abby P said...

These articles brought to the forefront of discussion two religious statements that have been held in high regard within the United States. Such phrases have been seen and recited so many times that a majority of Americans hardly think twice about them. However, as Justice Brennan encouraged, one must always analyze a situation from the view of the minority. These two phrases are religious in their very nature. Utilizing them in a "patriotic" manner does not take away from the fact that both phrases include the word God in them. This may not go against the Free Exercise Clause; however, personally I believe that such phrases do violate the Establishment Clause. If one goes back to Lemon one can certainly see that there is no real secular purpose behind these phrases; and also that these phrases do promote one religion, namely a monotheistic one, while inhibiting others. As Dallas noted, it is certainly true that if the court declared these phrases unconstitutional there would be a severe uproar from the people; however, at times the courts must make decisions that are unpopular in order to respect the rights of minorities and preserve the Constitution.