On March 24, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Elk Grove Unified School District vs. Newdow, the case challenging the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional. Atheist Michael Newdow sued the Elk Grove school district, saying that his daughter was harmed when forced to hear a teacher-led recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and that it was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although the 9th Circuit Court originally agreed with Mr. Newdow’s contention, the court stayed the ruling after a national uproar ensued.
The 9th Circuit Court based its decision on two court cases Wallace vs. Jaffree and Santa Fe School District vs. Doe. Both cases the court cited in its decision involved how prayer was handled in public school settings. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals deliberately chose to ignore that the Supreme Court has a history of distinguishing between state-sponsored or -endorsed prayer, which it has repeatedly upheld does violate the Establishment Clause, and ceremonial or patriotic acknowledgements of God, which it has also repeatedly held does not. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to follow the dicta of these previous decisions because “the court has never been presented with the question directly.”
Congress added the phrase “under God” to the pledge in 1954, meaning to distinguish clearly between the religious heritage of the United States and the atheistic principles of Communism. As one lawmaker stated in 1954: “Our American government is founded on … the belief that every human being has been created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp. Thus, the inclusion of God in our Pledge of Allegiance … sets at naught the communistic theory that the state takes precedence over the inpidual.”
Our government acknowledges this nation’s religious heritage in the Constitution, the National Motto and the National Anthem. The inclusion of the phrase is reflective of a political philosophy, not a theology, and as such it does not violate the Establishment Clause. Washington pundits remain fairly confident that the Supreme Court will overturn the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the Supreme Court can do so on the issue of standing, which constituted the brunt of the March 24 debate, or it can do so on the basis of the merits of the case. We urge the Supreme Court to uphold the inclusion of such references as testimony to this nation’s religious and patriotic heritage, outside of the realm of dicta and into a precedent-setting ruling.