06/21/04 — Anticlimax: Court skirts substance of suit against pledge

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Anticlimax: Court skirts substance of suit against pledge

The question of whether the words “under God” can remain in the Pledge of Allegiance has not been settled, even though the Supreme Court has dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the wording. That challenge ended in an anticlimax.

The suit was filed by an atheist, Dr. Michael Newdow of San Francisco, who objected to his daughter being subjected to God’s name when the pledge was recited at her school.

The court did not rule on whether God should be mentioned in the pledge but on whether Newdow had the right to sue. He never married his daughter’s mother, and the courts have given the mother decision-making authority on matters involving the child. The mother, Sandra Banning of Elk Grove, Calif., a Christian, opposed the suit.

Since the ruling did not address the substance of the case — whether “under God” should be in the pledge — another challenge is certain. Opponents of the phrase believe that when the pledge is said in public schools, that phrase puts it in violation of the First Amendment.

The Bush administration helped to fight the Newdow suit. The administration takes the position that the reference to God is more historical and ceremonial than religious.

Indeed, the government’s use of God’s name goes back to the very first days of America, a sure indication that the framers of the Constitution approved of it. The Constitution prohibits Congress from establishing an official religion, but to argue that God’s name cannot even be mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance is ludicrous.

Contrary to the Bush administration’s argument, saying the phrase “under God” is for some Americans a religious exercise — in fact, a prayer. And prayer is allowed in public schools. What is banned, rightfully, is prayer laid down by the state or by its agent, a teacher.

Since courts have already ruled that schools can’t force a child to recite the pledge, the mention of God in it does not violate the freedom from state-dictated prayer. It is unfortunate that the court did not have an opportunity to make that clear in the Newdow case.

Published in Editorials on June 21, 2004 10:29 AM