A gracEmail subscriber asks what I think, as a Christian lawyer, of the recent federal appeals court decision declaring the phrase “under God” in the U.S. pledge of allegiance to be unconstitutional.
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First of all, the decision (issued by a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 26, 2002 and written by Nixon-appointee Judge Alfred T. Goodwin) has no immediate effect pending its reconsideration by the full Circuit Court, and most legal scholars — liberal and conservative alike — agree that it will be reversed by either the Ninth Circuit or by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even if the decision stands, it will not change God’s position as sovereign over his creation including the United States of America. The phrase “under God” was not part of the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954 when, following a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, Congress added the two words to contrast American faith with godless Communism. Needless to say, the USA was as fully “under God” for the first 178 years of its history as it was after the addition of these words to the Pledge.
Americans who reverence God would have no real reason to rejoice if the Supreme Court upheld the words “under God” based on the kind of logic some members of the Court have used in the past. In 1984, for example, several Justices declared the motto “In God We Trust” constitutionally harmless because they said it had lost all religious significance through rote repetition. Similarly, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge amounts only to “ceremonial deism” according to former Justice William Brennan. Even atheists can say “O God!” as a careless expression with no meaning. Christians, Jews or Muslims (all monotheists who worship the God of the Bible) find no comfort in the secularist rationalization that the Pledge “doesn’t say which god.”
The correct result would be for the full Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court to reverse the present decision for the right reason. That is the fact that the expression of meaningful religious faith has always characterized our nation’s public life — indeed its very charter documents — and that the men who wrote and approved the Constitution intended and expected that to continue to be the case in the future. The First Amendment twice ensures religious freedom, guaranteeing that government will not favor any particular religion over another (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) and that citizens will always be free to practice their own faith without government interference (“nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).
Finally, all of us who say we believe in God would do well to follow his commandments — including his command to love our neighbors who do not share our faith. Dr. Michael Newdow, the atheist emergency-room physician with a law degree who brought the suit resulting in the June 26 decision, told the press that he has received numerous threats on his life and that his second-grade daughter has been moved to a safe location. If true — and it probably is — those who issue such threats make a mockery of the faith they claim to represent and strengthen the misguided Dr. Newdow’s fears that religious people pose a danger to democracy and to civil society in general.