Sept. 15, 2005 - Analysis: Recitation of Pledge Struck Down in California
Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty
September 15, 2005
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY NEWSFLASH!
RECITATION OF PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS STRUCK DOWN IN CALIFORNIA
A Federal Judge in California ruled on Wednesday that public schools cannot require school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and issued a restraining order to schools in Sacramento County compelling them to halt the practice. The case was filed by Michael Newdow, the same atheist who had earlier challenged the Pledge. This time, he filed suit on behalf of several parents and their children.
The decision has not yet been published, but press reports indicate that Judge Lawrence Karlton felt constrained by the earlier decision of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. That decision was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but on procedural grounds. The Supreme Court had held that Newdow lacked “standing” to sue, in other words, he was not entitled to file the suit on behalf of his daughter, since he was not the primary custodial parent. That decision was sharply criticized by father’s rights organizations for undermining the rights of non-custodial parents.
Judge Karlton did not rule that the 1954 Act of Congress inserting the phrase “one nation, under God” into the Pledge was unconstitutional. His decision was that the Pledge could not be recited in public schools because of its religious content.
Analysis: On its face, the Pledge’s reference to God can readily be construed as an endorsement of religion, and for that reason, it is susceptible to being ruled unconstitutional. Indeed, it is not merely an endorsement of generic religion, but monotheistic religion in an increasingly religiously diverse society.
However, such public religious expressions have occasionally been approved by the Supreme Court, and more often by lower courts. The Supreme Court has approved of the practice of legislative chaplains offering prayer, and most recently, the public display of the Ten Commandments, at least in some circumstances. Lower courts have routinely rejected challenges to the phrase “In God We Trust” on our coins. The courts approve a certain amount of what has come to be known as “civil religion.” ‘ Quite clearly, American civil religion is monotheistic.
What does the phrase, “one nation, under God” mean? I think it means, primarily, that there is an authority that is higher than the state. Americans have acknowledged this higher authority from our beginning. The Declaration of Independence declares that our rights are inalienable because we have been endowed with them by our Creator. Although we deliberately established a religiously neutral government, designed to foster religious freedom, this does not require us to ignore the fact that government authority must be exercised humbly and carefully as subordinate to a higher power.
It is right and proper for all Americans to remember that our state is subordinate to God, and will be held accountable to God. There has been much discussion lately about whether Hurricane Katrina constitutes a judgment of God on an especially immoral city, New Orleans. At least one prominent Adventist preacher said that Katrina is evidence that the angels holding back the four winds of strife are beginning to loose their grips, and that Katrina should be a wake-up call. It is right and proper for our leaders to proceed prayerfully, soberly, with a due regard for their accountability to God.
Such a reminder need not violate religious freedom. The reference to God in the pledge does not serve religious purposes of worship or devotion, but serves the civil purpose of reminding citizens and officials alike of the limits of state authority. Unlike other forms of civil religion which tend to send the message that God is on our side, the Pledge acknowledges that our state is under a higher authority.
The Supreme Court made it clear sixty years ago that no school child can be compelled to salute the flag, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This will not remove all coercive pressure. But where does it say that religious freedom must be easy? It takes courage to stand up for your convictions. At least no one can be punished for exercising their convictions to avoid recitation of the Pledge. Will some be ostracized or criticized for abstaining? Jehovah Witnesses know what that feels like, but they have continued to refuse to salute the flag and recite the Pledge. The law protects our right to believe and to practice our faith, not our right to be free of criticism for our convictions. The principle of non-coercion in matters of faith is sound, but should be understood to prohibit any penalty or sanction for exercising one’s faith. No legal scheme can protect a person against criticism for their views or actions, even vulnerable school children.
We may question whether Christians should pledge allegiance to an earthly government, at all. But if we do choose to recite the Pledge, it is right and proper to acknowledge that the nation is subordinate to God. In fact, I would be reluctant to recite the Pledge without the acknowledgment of God.
In the end, I expect the Supreme Court to uphold the Pledge of Allegiance on the merits. The Court is not immune to public opinion, and would be unlikely to buck the public’s massive support for the Pledge. In the meantime, the 9th Circuit will likely rule again that the Pledge is unconstitutional, fueling the fundraising efforts of conservative groups, and firing the passions of those who fear that God is being pushed out of American life.
We have responded to the public interest in the role of God and the Ten Commandments in American life, by preparing a poster and brochure, “Written in the Heart,” soon to be followed by www.WrittenInTheHeart.com. We are urging Americans to put the law of God back where it belongs: in our hearts. We remain profoundly convinced that the solution to America’s moral and spiritual decline lies in a recovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than in any legal or political arena.
These religious liberty newsflashes and legislative e.lerts are published by the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Department of Public Affairs & Religious Liberty. While due diligence is exercised to insure that the facts are accurate, and the opinions expressed are both responsible and consistent with the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, nevertheless, the views expressed are the sole responsibility of the staff, and do not constitute an official position of the church.
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