Michael Newdow – atheist, doctor and father – is back in the news with a new suit challenging the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance after his first suit was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court on a technicality. Last week, a federal judge in Sacramento upheld his current attempt, a suit on behalf of three families to prevent religious indoctrination in public schools.
The Pledge of Allegiance, as currently written, contains an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and the courts should continue to rule in favor of Newdow and his clients in order to uphold the separation of church and state.
The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment specifies that no national religion will be chosen or enforced by the federal government. While the phrase “under God” does not delineate a very specific set of beliefs, it does exclude the large number of Americans who do not believe in God, as well as those who worship multiple deities.
Indeed, when Newdow sued on behalf of his daughter, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the current version of the Pledge violates the First Amendment . While that case was overturned when the Supreme Court held that Newdow lacked legal custody of his daughter – and thus grounds to sue, no court has questioned the 9th Circuit’s interpretation of the First Amendment as applied to the Pledge.
A religious legal group, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, has vowed to appeal the recent district court ruling. Appellate courts should uphold and extend the district judge’s correct interpretation of the Constitution.
Many arguments against Newdow’s crusade are based on reverence for tradition and the symbolic meaning of the Pledge. These objections are groundless because the Pledge has only supported Judeo-Christian monotheism for about 50 years. Congress added the phrase “under God” during the red scare of the 1950s, in response to lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization. The legislative intent for this move was clear – it was an attempt to contrast a Christian America with atheistic Communism.
Supporters of the Pledge in its current form point out that no child is ever forced to say the pledge. For any elementary school student, however, peer pressure will inevitably take precedence over defending a belief he scarcely understands. Particularly in smaller, more religious communities, publicly abstaining from the Pledge would undoubtedly subject students and their families to ridicule and even ostracism. Newdow wants to intervene on behalf of those who do not believe in a higher power in order to protect them from the stigma created by their government-supported school system.
In the spirit of supporting individual rights and the separation of church and state, the courts should chose to correct Congress’s mistake, instead of clinging to the invalid argument that the Pledge is simply something mindlessly repeated out of respect for our forefathers. Instead of the mission statement it should be, the Pledge – a proclamation of loyalty to our country – has become a hollow mockery of the very passionate freedom it is meant to represent.