According to a 2-1 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, God is not religious. At least, not when teachers instruct children that ours is a nation “under God” on a daily basis. All across the state of California, schoolchildren line up every morning to profess their allegiance to the flag and the country “for which it stands”. In 1954, however, the official pledge was changed to include the phrase “under God.” A belief in God was a “characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life,” claimed Reverend George Docherty in a sermon that spurred President Eisenhower to action to have the pledge modified.
But not everyone agrees that our country is subservient to God — or even that God exists — so having children say so seems a bit cheeky. Of course, students are not required to participate in reciting the pledge, but there are still some real problems with the ceremony. I’ve written about them previously but, unfortunately, Dorothy Nelson and Carlos Bea, the Ninth Circuit judges that ruled on the matter last week, didn’t read my post. Instead, they made a classic error in equating the Declaration of Independence — a statement of the founding fathers’ reasons for choosing independence — with the Constitution — the primary law of the land.
Judge Bea also claims that the plaintiffs “focus solely on the words ‘under God’ in isolation, stripped of all context and history” and then goes on to ignore the context and history behind the addition of that phrase.
As Judge Reinhardt wrote in his dissent, the phrase was “added in 1954 for the specific religious purpose, among others, of indoctrinating public schoolchildren with a religious belief.” And that’s the problem. When you have an authority figure — one that children are supposed to listen to and believe — standing in front of them telling them that ours is a nation “under God” (with the implication that there is no question that God exists), you have a problem. Either they believe the teacher (perhaps contradicting what their parents have told them) or the teacher loses credibility because they disagree.
There would be no problem with the pledge as it stands, of course, if everyone in the country were devout Christians, but we are by no means such a homogeneous society. This is why we need the first amendment — to prevent any majority from using the government to force their religious beliefs on the minority.