Sunday, February 8, 2015

Court Dismisses Notion that Pledge Establishes Religion

Last week, a New Jersey state court dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance which includes the phrase under God. John and Jane Doe are parents of a child in the Matawan-Aberdeen School District and happen to be atheists and Humanists who do deny the existence of any kind of deity. They insist that because of their humanist beliefs, their child is unable to fully recite the pledge and feels excluded from other children when the Pledge of Allegiance is recited even though the recitation of the pledge is voluntary. The American Humanist Association, who filed the suit with the Doe family, argues that the pledges portrayal of a belief in a god implies that people who do not believe in a god are less patriotic.

In 1942, the United States Congress officially adopted the Pledge of Allegiance but the phrase “under God” was not officially added to the pledge until 1954. The court noted that the House Report for that amendment to the pledge indicated the intent to emphasize that political authority comes from God but that the language “under God” was not attempting to establish a religious institution. The House Report states that “A distinction must be made between the existence of a religion as an institution and a belief in the sovereignty of God. The phrase ‘under God’ recognizes only the guidance of God in our national affairs.”  The court stated that following the Plaintiff’s reasoning, the very Constitution that they are appealing to could be deemed unconstitutional due to the acknowledgement of a God. The court stated that this would be “an absurd proposition which the Plaintiffs do not and cannot advance here.”

During the preceding, the court heard from Samantha Jones, a high school student who argued that students have the right to say under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. In response to the court’s decision, Jones said, “We all have the right to remain silent, but nobody has the right to silence anybody else.” Eric Rassbach from the Becket Fund, which supported Jones, argued “The Pledge is not a prayer to God, but a statement about who we are as a nation. Dissenters have every right to sit out the Pledge, but they can’t silence everyone else.”

I disagree with the arguments put forth by Jones and Rassbach and believe the court was wrong in dismissing this case. The language under God may not be establishing a particular sect of religion but it does establish the sects of religions that believe in God. Therefore, it excludes those who do not have that same belief. The writers of the amended Pledge may not have had the intent to establish religion but the intent is largely irrelevant to its actual effect. One can be a firm believer in a certain principle but can be imperfect in applying that principle. The fact that the phrase under God and other language have been accepted as religiously tolerant in the past should not be an excuse to avoid taking steps to ensuring greater religious freedom today.

As noted above, it has been argued that removing under God from the pledge would be a violation of the rights of students who wish to remain reciting the current version of the Pledge. A similar argument was made in Engel v. Vitale (1962) in the defense of the daily recital of a prayer in a New York school district. In the court’s ruling that this practice was a violation of the Establishment Clause, the court reminded us that it is “neither sacrilegious nor antireligious” for the government to stay out of writing or sanctioning prayers. Taking under God out of the Pledge would not be an attack on anyone’s freedom. Students do not need the school to lead them in the Pledge in order for them to say it. Individuals would still be able to freely say their own version of the Pledge on their own time. The fact that the government does not sponsor something does not mean that they are attacking it.

In Samantha Jones’ defense of the current version of the Pledge, she says “The phrase ‘under God’ protects all Americans – including atheists – because it reminds the government that it can’t take away basic human rights because it didn’t create them.”  While the dialogue in court decisions has a different take on the purpose of the Pledge, I would suggest that the use of under God is not necessary to remind the government of the natural freedoms we have. The version of the Pledge before the amendment in 1954 reads as follows:

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

I believe that this version of the Pledge accomplishes all the same goals of promoting freedom and patriotism without establishing any religion. Since the original version of the Pledge did not have the phrase under God it would be natural for the country to readopt an older version of the Pledge

Do you think that the phrase under God violates the Establishment Clause? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. 


Nina N. said...

I agree very much with what you said. While I do believe that the phrase "under God" should not be apart of the Pledge of Allegiance, I still understand that people may want to say it. But if you look at it this way, it would still be the same in practice, just not in writing. People would either say it after that part or not say it and remain silent, much like how it is now. I do think for the sake of constitutionality, "under God" should be removed. But, much like one of our cases for today mentioned, this also calls other American mottos and phrases into question, such as "In God We Trust." America may have many religions but people tend to prefer the status quo over change, and with a large Christian/traditional population, I don't believe these phrases will change for a very long time.

Nate McGuinness said...

As long as they are allowing for the child to opt out of saying that phrase then I don't see the problem, of course child are going to fell left out or a little isolated if everyone else is doing that activity, if the parents are truly concerned about these somewhat trivial temporary social consequences facing their child they could just instruct him to say the phrase and then take it upon themselves as responsible caregivers to explain to their child why they are having him say the phrase even though it is something the family does not personally believe, they could also just take 5 minutes to explain why opting out of the phrase of course does not make you less of a patriot, or they could displace the responsibility of these minor augmentations on their end to the school and try to influence the way others conduct themselves in a proceeding with very loose and general religious connotations, if I'm not mistaken this is the general type of argument used by atheists and agnostics when they feel as though religious beliefs are motivating people to insist how others should be allowed to live their lives

Nneoma I. said...

I agree with your argument. Many Americans are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of changing the pledge of allegiance, being that it holds historical and nationalistic sentiments in our country. It is true that our country was founded with some religious influence (for example: "IN GOD WE TRUST" printed on our money). However, I don't believe it is possible to separate religion from the ideal of "sovereignty under God". This concept is offensive to those who believe in many Gods or none. The term "under God" was added during the Cold War period. The social tensions that permitted this saying, do not apply in this time. That being said, I think it is highly unlikely that the pledge will be changed. Americans value tradition and history. Regardless, it is still unconstitutional.

Libby W said...

I feel as though "under God" does not directly establish a religion but that it should definitely be removed. I think allowing this to be present could potentially be the first step towards the establishment of a religion, so it should be prevented as soon as possible. It is true that children can still take time out of their own day to say something about God if they so desire, but I think it is unnecessary to have this be the norm in public schools. Church and State should remain separate and this is a small yet solid example of intertwining the two which could later lead to more problems.

Anonymous said...

I support the argument made by the atheists in this case. I believe the pledge of allegiance should be left out of public schools entirely because it forces religious minorities to make a choice between their faith and the possibility of being an outcast or being embarrassed. If the pledge isn't taken out of schools, they could also take out the "under God" portion. This would make the pledge neutral to all religions and purely a matter of nationalism. I believe taking that portion out would be in line with the modern interpretations of the Establishment Clause and would make religious minorities feel much more comfortable about participating in the pledge.

Abby Copp said...

I do also think that the inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge is unconstitutional, however I do agree completely with Nneoma's point that Americans are partial to terms of historical tradition, whether or not the sentiment reflects religious intent. If I remember correctly, the state of California has already taken "under God" out of the Pledge as it refers to school settings, so it seems that there is a change taking place, even if it is gradual. Despite evidence of this change, I think it will take a very long time for the Pledge to be changed on a national level, if at all.

Will P. said...

I believe that the use of the term 'Under God' envokes a governmental establishment of some sort of religion. The original version of the pledge of allegiance maintained an allegiance to our country, without any mention of religion. While there may be an appeal to our nations history, and religious origins, there is a breach of the wall erected between church and state in the first amendment. I personally dont think that there will come a time where these phrases will be changed or altered. The ability to opt out is not neutral. As I have said before, there is only true neutrality in blanket secularism