In a decision that may have serious implications for church-state separation, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has ruled that the governmental use of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the U.S. Constitution. In a 2-1 decision, the court stated that the phrase does not form an unacceptable government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The court held that the Pledge does not violate the Establishment Clause because “Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose [is] to inspire patriotism and that the context of the Pledge–its wording as a whole, the preamble to the statute, and this nation’s history–demonstrate that it is a predominantly patriotic exercise. For these reasons, the phrase ‘one Nation under God’ does not turn this patriotic exercise into a religious activity.” Thus, a California statute permitting teachers to lead students in recitation of the Pledge does not violate the Establishment Clause.
“I’m disappointed with the court’s ruling today,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “What unites us should be a civic bond, not a religious tenet. Government should respect Americans from all walks of life and backgrounds, yet nontheists are still in many ways treated like second-class citizens in this country.”
In a separate case, the court also today dismissed a challenge by Newdow of the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, ruling that Newdow “failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
Both cases were originally brought by Michael Newdow, a lawyer with the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. The Pledge case was brought on behalf of his daughter against the Elk Grove Unified School District in 2000. Newdow argued that school children should not be required to recite the Pledge. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court originally ruled in his favor in 2002; however, the Bush administration appealed, arguing that the pledge is a patriotic exercise, not government-backed religion. The U.S. Supreme Court then overturned the ruling in 2004 on the technical issue of standing. Addressing the issue of standing, Newdow sued a second time.
“The government should not be supporting particular religious views,” said Speckhardt. “Even a statement as non-specific and supposedly all-encompassing as ‘In God We Trust’ sends the false message that America is a monotheistic country. That excludes the nearly 30 million Americans who don’t identify with a religion, as well as the many others, such as Buddhists and Hindus, who don’t subscribe to monotheism. I don’t trust in any god, nor do I see evidence that belief in God unites Americans or the people of any other diverse nation.”
Speckhardt said he would support an appeal to the Supreme Court. “We will keep fighting to restore the Pledge to its original, non-sectarian form. Neither adults nor children should feel that in order to be an American citizen they should hold particular religious views.”
David Niose, lawyer and president of the American Humanist Association, concluded by adding, “By adding the words ‘under God’ in 1954 at the height of the McCarthy era, America unfortunately made itself divisible, not indivisible. With the Pledge in its current religious form, rather than its original inclusive form, millions of secular Americans are excluded. This is one nation, very divided.”