In September 2001, the Wisconsin state legislature enacted legislation requiring Wisconsin school districts to have students either recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing (or have played) the national anthem daily. The following month, on October 8, 2001, the Madison, Wisconsin, school board, by a vote of 3-2, banned student recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools and prohibited students from singing the national anthem and substituted an instrumental version. Board member Bill Keys said the words "under God" in the pledge were offensive to some and that many were opposed to the militaristic themes in the "Star-Spangled Banner." "What I wanted to do was eliminate that which would be repugnant to those who believe very strongly and would have their personal and political beliefs violated by group coercion," said Keys. And, of course, he found a way to inject the familiar buzzword "inclusive" into the mix. He said, "We have a large number of people who refuse to take religious oaths to something other than what they believe in. We were trying to satisfy the state law and be as inclusive as possible." One board member, however, rejected the charge that the pledge was predominantly religious. Member Ray Allen said, "For a few minutes every morning, everyone joins together in an exercise that I believe binds us together. I don't think the pledge is about religion. I think it is a commitment to our democracy."
One Madison resident in favor of the ban said that it was unfair to divide students with different beliefs over the pledge issue. "It's bad enough Osama bin Laden has declared a holy war on us," said Laura Brown. "It's a heck of a lot worse if we declare war on each other in the name of God." It's difficult to understand how one can come to the conclusion that those favoring recitation of the pledge are divisive, much less engaging in a holy war. Such excessiveness and disproportion often drive the anti-religion crowd. Subsequent events in Madison, though, convincingly proved that Laura Brown's radical view was in the minority-a very small minority-at least in Madison.
The school board received more than 20,000 e-mails and phone calls, almost all of which expressed opposition to the board's banning of the pledge and anthem." Governor Scott McCallum denounced the school board as "oddballs; and one state legislator threatened to propose cutting state funding. Just a week after its decision, under intense community pressure, the board reversed itself. Following a late-night meeting that overflowed the Madison High School 800-seat auditorium with irate citizens, the board, by a vote of 6-1, determined that the district's students would begin each day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, effective immediately. At the meeting, 165 separate people spoke before the board. Before the meeting began, the citizen audience spontaneously erupted into a recitation of the pledge, over some scattered booing. Upon its completion, the crowd applauded and waved American flags. One person in attendance, Dan Neviaser, who had volunteered to serve in World War II, was blunt. "In this time of stress and fear," said Neviaser, "we need our 'Star-Spangled Banner,' we need our Pledge of Allegiance. You know what we don't need? Our school board."
The controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance and saluting the flag is actually an old one. In 1940, the Supreme Court chose to hear a case involving the suspension of two Jehovah's Witness schoolchildren, aged ten and twelve, for disobeying the school district's requirement that they salute the flag. So the students' father brought an action to enjoin the authorities from violating his children's religious freedom by requiring them to participate in the flag-salute ceremony as a condition to attending the school. As Jehovah's Witnesses, they held that the flag was a graven image to which they shouldn't bow. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), the court upheld the school district's position. It ruled that the school district's interest in promoting national unity outweighed the religious freedom of the Witnesses. "National unity," said the Court, "is the basis of national security." But just three years later, the court properly corrected itself in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), holding that the states (and local school districts) cannot compel students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
In 2002, the pledge issue came up again in a nationally celebrated case in California, Newdow v. United States Congress (2002). Michael Newdow sued his daughter's school district for unconstitutionally endorsing religion because her teacher led the class in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. He also challenged the constitutionality of a 1954 act of Congress that added the words "under God" to the pledge. Newdow, an avowed atheist, argued that his daughter, over whom he did not have custody and who lived with her Christian mother, was injured just by having to watch and listen to other students reciting the pledge-even though she was not required to participate. The liberal three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. "In the context of the pledge," said the court, "the statement that the United States is a nation under God' is an endorsement of religion ...
Furthermore, the school district's practice of teacher-led recitation of the pledge aims to inculcate in students a respect for the ideals set forth in the pledge, and thus amounts to state endorsement of these ideals. Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the pledge."
It's probably not an exaggeration to say that no case since Engel v. Vitale (1962)-the school prayer case-has caused such a public uproar, with the possible exception of Roe. v. Wade (1973), one of two companion abortion cases. President George W. Bush, according to then White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, thought the ruling was "ridiculous." The president said that the decision was "out of step" with the country's history. "The Supreme Court itself begins each of its sessions with the phrase 'God save the United States and this honorable court,"' said Fleischer. "The Declaration of Independence refers to God or to the creator four different times. Congress begins each session of the Congress each day with a prayer, and of course our currency says, 'In God We Trust: The view of the White House is that this was a wrong decision and the Department of justice is now evaluating how to seek redress:' "America;" said President Bush, "is a nation that values our relationship with the Almighty. We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God."
Even the ordinarily left-leaning New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post editorial pages mildly criticized the ruling. The New York Times wrote, "This is a well-meaning ruling, but it lacks common sense." The Los Angeles Times said, "The Cold War insertion of the phrase in 1954 clearly was driven as much by ideology as religion. That said, for all the overheated and dire predictions voiced then, the 'under God' phrase has in no way led to establishment of an official state religion:' And the Washington Post: "We believe in strict separation between church and state, but the pledge is hardly a particular danger spot crying out for judicial policing."
Congress also made a point of expressing its disgust with the decision. Shortly after the ruling, 150 House members assembled on the front steps of the Capitol and recited the pledge. The Senate unanimously enacted an immediate non-binding resolution condemning the decision (99-0). Senator Kit Bond of Missouri crisply remarked, "Our Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves. This is the worst kind of political correctness run amok. What's next? Will the courts now strip 'so help me God' from the pledge taken by new presidents?" Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House, said the ruling underscored the need for the Senate to "confirm some common sense jurists."
The Senate didn't stop with its non-binding resolution. The next day it passed Senate Bill 2690 (this one was binding), again by a vote of 99-0. The bill affirmed that:
On June 15, 1954, Congress passed, and President Eisenhower signed into law a statute, that was clearly consistent with the text and intent of the Constitution of the United States, that amended the Pledge of Allegiance to read, "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
As National Review's Byron York aptly observed, "The interesting thing about the wording is that it declares Congress's action in 1954 as being clearly consistent with the text and intent of the Constitution." The bill goes on to codify the pledge with "under God," reaffirms the national motto, "In God we trust," and pointedly condemns the Ninth Circuit decision for its "erroneous rationale" and "absurd result." The House of Representatives passed the bill as well, with only five members voting against and four members abstaining, all nine being Democrats. On November 13, 2002, President Bush signed the bill into law.
The first two chapters have shown that Christianity is increasingly banned from our public schools-even when there is little evidence of school sponsorship of the religion. Nevertheless, many Christians might be able to countenance the ridiculously expansive interpretations of the Establishment Clause that preclude Christian religious freedom in the name of safeguarding it, were it not for the other half of the story. Chapters Three and Four tell this other half: that the education establishment often doesn't apply the same scrutiny of values-teaching in public schools when the values are secularly based or based on other major religions. If the separationists insist that there be a "wall of separation" between church and state, why don't they demand that it be applied across the board-against secular humanism, which even the Supreme Court has identified as a religion, and against other major religions? The answer, I'm afraid, is that what really motivates them is not an affinity for the separation principle, but a worldview that simply will not tolerate Christianity.
Was this article helpful?