ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Uphold Ruling Removing the Phrase "Under God" From Pledge of Allegiance Recited in Public Schools

March 24, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today urged the Supreme Court to uphold a federal appeals court ruling that public schools are constitutionally barred from linking patriotism and piety by reciting the phrase “under God” as part of the Pledge of Allegiance.

“The government should not be asking impressionable schoolchildren to affirm their allegiance to God at the same time that they are affirming their allegiance to the country,” said ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro.

“Removing ‘under God’ from the Pledge is not anti-religious,” he added. “Just the opposite is true. The only way the religious reference in the Pledge can be upheld is for the Court to conclude that the words ‘under God’ have no religious meaning, which is far more insulting to people of faith.”

As the ACLU noted in a friend-of-the-court brief, Congress added the phrase “under God” at the height of the anti-communist McCarthy Era. In signing the bill, then-President Eisenhower said that the phrase “under God” was added so that schoolchildren would “daily proclaim?the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

The case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 02-1624, was originally brought by a California man, Michael Newdow, against his daughter’s public school district, where children as young as five are asked to recite the Pledge. Newdow argued that the district’s Pledge of Allegiance policy directly interfered with his parental right to influence his daughter’s religious development and, at the same time violated the Constitution’s prohibition against government entanglement with religion. He is arguing the case today in the Supreme Court.

While the government has insisted that the Pledge is simply an “acknowledgment” of this country’s religious heritage, the ACLU’s Supreme Court brief cited social science research demonstrating that many children perceive the words “under God” as a form of prayer.

Indeed, President Bush has said much the same thing. In a November 2002 letter to Hawaiian religious leaders that is attached as an appendix to the ACLU brief, President Bush wrote: “When we pledge allegiance to One Nation under God, our citizens participate in an important American tradition of humbly seeking the wisdom and blessing of Divine Providence.”

In its 2002 ruling striking down the phrase, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that “a profession that we are a nation ‘under God’ is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.” The appeals court added that the coercive effect of this policy is “particularly pronounced in the school setting given the age and impressionability of schoolchildren.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, who had earlier criticized the appeals court’s decision in the Pledge case, has recused himself from ruling in today’s case. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit decision will stand in the event of a 4-4 split.

Joining the ACLU in its friend-of-the-court brief are Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Americans for Religious Liberty. The Court has received almost 50 friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, representing the broad range of opinion on this controversial issue.

The ACLU’s brief is online at /node/36293

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