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A place for God (Scripps Howard News Service) June 28, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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We should have seen it coming. Most were surely surprised, even shocked, to pick up their newspaper and learn that a federal appeals court had found the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. But this storm about the place of religion in American public live has been brewing for years, and even the current stay and inevitable reversal of the case will not be the end of it.

No, this crazy court decision is not just the product of a couple of nutty California judges. In finding that children should not be required even to listen to a reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, these federal judges followed a widely accepted, but flawed, line of thinking to its inevitable conclusion, removing God from any mention of public life. The good news is that the radical result of this case is so visible, and so unpopular, that perhaps now the pendulum will begin to swing back toward finding an appropriate place for God in the public arena.

The case that drew all this into focus was brought by an atheist father of a California elementary school student, who felt that his daughter should not have to listen to “under God” when the pledge is said in school. The Supreme Court had long ago protected her from having to say the words, holding that teachers could be required to lead the pledge but students could not be forced to say it. A three-judge panel of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the father, deciding that requireing the student to listen to the words “under God” violated the establishment clause of teh U.S. Constitution.

The problem with the court’s reasoning is that its understanding of the establishment clause is more a matter of myth than reality. What the Constitution actually says is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” Is listening to”under God” in a pledge a law? Is carrying a coin with “one nation under God” a law? Is playing “God Bless America” at a public event a law? I think know. No, these are forms of public expression, highly valued and protected.

More important, do any of these references to God in American public life “establish” a religion? Hardly. Those words have been in teh Pledge of Allegiance for 48 years now, and they have not established a religion yet. In fact, the evidence shows that, at least until Sept. 11, religion in most of its forms has been in decline in America. Merely referring to God is a long way from establishing a religion.

We have come to accept a popular myth that the establishment clause requires a complete and total absence of religion everywhere in American public life. Despite the frequency and finality with which it is often states, the so-called “wall of separation” between church and state is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constituion. And the First Amendment to the Constitution actually guarantees freedom “of” religion, not freedom from it. The judges are mistaken when they say that the Constitution legally prohibits a reference to God in our pledges, and presumably soon our coins and public places.

Standing behind the constitutional questions are important lessons from history and culture. Without question, one of the major motivations behind the founding of this country was a strong desire for free religious expression.

At a time when we see the value of celebrating the many cultures that make up our land, it would be ironic to begin erasing the faith of our founders from our public memory. Indeed, as we learned after Sept. 11, God and faith and prayer are valuable elements of national life.

The challenge now is to find an approach that allows God to be part of public life in America, without taking it over. That is complex and important work, but we should not settle for the unconstitutional simplicity of removing God from public life altogether. The work should begin by reversing this court decision and restoring “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, but then it must continue. Our nation will be stronger when it finds chords of public life where religion is one of the notes that can be heard.

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