Following up on the previous entry I’d like to point to an op-ed piece by Ayesha N. Khan over at SFGate.com:
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether the words “under God” must be omitted from the recitation of the pledge in public schools. As a legal matter, the required outcome is plain: A principled application of constitutional law calls for the words to be stricken. As a political matter, however, the case is more complex: It pairs patriotism with religious faith, matters that inflame passions when they arise in isolation and are downright incendiary when they coalesce. But it is precisely because the pledge pairs religion and politics that the phrase must be removed.
Ayesha manages to touch upon most of the same arguments I’ve made on this issue since it first came to light.
The Pledge served us fine for 60 some odd years before Congress felt the need to improve it by adding the words “under God” to it in the 1950s. At that point it went from a unifying statement to a divisive one by implying that only those who believe in a monotheistic God were patriotic. Supporters like to claim it’s a recognition of the country’s religious heritage and that it constitutes ‘ceremonial deism’ that is devoid of religious meaning, yet both these arguments fail when one looks at history. Several attempts were made at the founding of this country to insert language acknowledging the Christian God in various documents that were removed to avoid entangling religion and government and history tells us that the events surrounding the 1954 addition to the Pledge made it very clear that the intent was wholely to promote a particular religious viewpoint and thusly the words are not devoid of any religious meaning nor were meant as an acknowledgment of our religious heritage. Ayesha goes on to mention a previous Pledge case brought before the Supreme Court in 1935:
Newdow’s experience mirrors that of Lillian Gobitis, a seventh-grader who, in 1935, sought to remain true to her Jehovah’s Witness teachings by opting out of the recitation of the pledge. It had not yet been amended to include the words “under God”—that occurred in 1954 at the height of the McCarthy era, when many Americans were keen to distinguish themselves from “godless Communists”—but Gobitis’ religious motivation for objection was perceived as unpatriotic by her fellow students, who subjected her to verbal harassment and physical attacks. School officials were equally intolerant of her perspective; they expelled her for “insubordination.” Lillian challenged her expulsion but ultimately lost before the Supreme Court, which was swayed by the politics of the impending war. The court’s 1940 ruling led to waves of persecution against Jehovah’s Witnesses at the hands of those emboldened by the decision’s affirmation of anti-minority sentiments.
But the high court got it wrong in the Gobitis case, and it did so for all the wrong reasons. If the federal courts cannot be counted on to rest their rulings on principle—rather than politics—they add nothing to our constitutional order that is not already provided by the representative branches of government. Even more important, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Gobitis case betrayed the very purpose of the Bill of Rights, which is to protect religious and other minorities from the political predilections of the majority.
The Supreme Court, as Ayesha notes, did eventually correct this error:
In recognition of its error, the Supreme Court corrected itself three years later. In West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette, the court upheld the right of Jehovah’s Witness students to abstain from reciting the pledge, eloquently explaining that “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.” In overruling its previous decision, the court recognized that the “case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure but because the flag involved is our own.”
Yet again, history repeats itself. But this time, let’s get it right—the first time. In so doing, we would be recognizing a new patriotism, one that allows all Americans to fully express their love for this great country.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.