'Under God' and the Pledge of Allegiance

June 2004

[On June 14 the United States Supreme Court dismissed Michael Newdow's suit seeking to remove 'Under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance. Avoiding the constitutional issues at stake, the Court dismissed the case on a technicality. They unanimously determined that Newdow did not have the legal right to sue on behalf of his daughter since he did not have custody of her and that her mother was not seeking relief. Three Justices signed a consenting opinion stating that the Pledge of Allegiance's reference to God would not have been unconstitutional in any case. It is yet to be determined how the other justices would have resolved this larger issue. Look for this issue to resurface quickly in the Ninth Circuit with a different parent who does have legal custody to sue on behalf of their child. By sidestepping the constitutional issue now, the Court only delayed a future day of resolving this issue.]

Original Article, published on June 1:

Any day now the Supreme Court will hand down its decision (Elk Grove Independent School District v. Newdow) on whether ‘under God' can remain in the Pledge of Allegiance or whether it must be removed.  No one knows for sure how the Supreme Court will rule.  In the past it has usually allowed such cultural references to God to stand reasoning that such references are so commonplace as to be noncoercive.

However, since the phrase ‘Under God’ was added in the 1950’s with a specific religious intent, the Supreme Court may rule it unconstitutional.  Whichever way the Court rules there will be an outcry of victory from one side and rage from the other.   Matters of faith touch some of the deepest emotions in our culture.  Since these passions have been stirred throughout the year with the controversy over gay marriage, the popularity of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the recent court case regarding partial birth abortions, you can expect this decision to raise an outcry whichever way it goes.

If your school is already out for the summer, you’ll have some time to contemplate your response, but if you are still in session when the ruling comes down you might want to give it some advance thought.  However the decision goes, it will provide an excellent opportunity for classroom instruction on our civil liberties and the tenuous balance between government not endorsing religion and at the same time not also restricting its free exercise.  How you handle it will determine whether you add fuel to the conflict or help people on both sides of this issue come to a greater appreciation for our common good.

So when the court case is decided, here are some suggestions to incorporate in your classroom the next time the class says the Pledge of Allegiance.

If the Supreme Court allows ‘under God’ to remain in the Pledge:

  • Read the the First Amendment and explain the issues that were important in this case.  How does government balance it’s responsibility not to endorse religion, while at the same time not denying the free expression of religious faith?
  • Discuss how religious faith played a role in the development of our American culture and why some felt coerced to practice religion by the wording of the Pledge.
  • Read excerpts from the Court decision (when available) that explains the Justices’ reasoning for allowing this phrase to stand even though it is a reference to God.
  • Assure students that government cannot make them practice religion and if they do not agree with the phrase ‘under God’, they are free not to say it when reciting the Pledge and that the other students will learn to respect their right to do so.

If the Supreme Court removes ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance:

  • Expect students and parents to express outrage at a court decision that reverses this cultural use of God in our public language.  In classrooms and public events many will continue to say ‘under God’ with greater volume and emphasis as a protest against the Court. 
  • Explain the First Amendment issues that were important in this case.  How does government balance it’s responsibility not to endorse religion, while at the same time not denying the free expression of religious faith?
  • Discuss how religious faith played a role in the development of our American culture and why some feel coerced to practice religion by the wording of the Pledge.
  • Read excerpts from the Court decision (when available) that explains the Justices’ reasoning for deciding this phrase is unconstitutional.  Explain that this was a difficult decision and that the courts will not always do what everyone else thinks is right. 
  • Remind students that this decision does not restrict anyone’s right to worship God or live their lives under him.  They can still say ‘under God’ in their own minds as a personal acknowledgement when reciting the Pledge, but encourage them not to do so out loud to show respect for the law and their fellow students.
  • Be patient. Change never comes easily, but if schools can affirm people's differing positions on this issue it will go a long ways to help disarm the conflict.
  • As a side note, this Court decision may also spawn a new wave of T-shirts promoting religious belief as a patriotic value. Keep in mind that schools cannot restrict messages on T-shirts for their religious or political content.

Wayne Jacobsen, President
BridgeBuilders

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Worldviews Education Watch (WEW) is a free service provided by BridgeBuilders offering the latest information on religious liberty and public education drawn from court cases, policies and current events. It will also share examples of successful partnerships and cooperation between public schools and faith communities.

To subscribe send email us with a request to "Subscribe Worldviews Watch."

Go Back to Current Issues