I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Go ahead and read it again. Let it sink in a little. Think about the words.
For most of us, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is the easiest thing to do.
It's so deeply ingrained in our memories, it's almost too easy. It comes out by rote. We stand up at a meeting, turn to the flag, put our hands on our hearts, and take the pledge.
So, we can thank the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for one thing. They gave it meaning again.
In a 2-1 decision written by Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, the court on Wednesday ruled the pledge is unconstitutional because it contains the words "under God." The uproar was instantaneous. The reaction was obvious. The response was predictable.
But let's stop and consider the ruling for a moment, like we are considering the pledge itself.
It comes in the case of Michael A. Newdow v. the U.S. Congress and others, including the Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified School District.
Newdow argues that because he is an atheist and his daughter attends public school in California, his right to teach her religious beliefs is being eroded by California's requirement that school classes begin each day with the Pledge of Allegiance.
This is a worthy issue for the 9th Circuit Court to consider, and I can applaud the court for tackling such a weighty matter. The question of whether government is attempting to establish a state religion by including "under God" since 1954 in the Pledge of Allegiance is just the kind of thing we relish debating in a free and open society.
There are many places in the world where such a debate would not be allowed. It is a strength of this country that we tackle such issues. It even shows the strength of character of the 9th Circuit Court that judges there would rule the Pledge is unconstitutional, knowing the firestorm of controversy they would create.
I read the 32-page decision and dissent with an open mind, because I feel strongly government in the United States should not attempt to endorse or establish a religion. But I concluded the same thing most others did as soon as they heard the ruling.
The court's absolutely wrong. Here's why:
Goodwin's opinion completely overlooks the argument that atheism -- the belief there is no God -- is not a religion; it's a philosophy. It's no more a religion than the Church of Drugs, Sex and Rock 'n Roll, or the Flat Earth Society.
People in the United States are free to believe whatever they want. If Newdow wants to teach his daughter that 2 plus 2 equals 5, we would never try to stop him. Her teachers would, however, continue to try to teach her 2 plus 2 equals 4.
The Pledge of Allegiance does not attempt to establish a religion. It recognizes the belief there is a God, a higher power, a greater purpose and ideal for the citizens of this country to look to for guidance. Courts too often misinterpret the First Amendment -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establisment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" -- as guaranteeing freedom from religion, rather than guaranteeing freedom of religion.
You can see this mistake clearly in Goodwin's opinion: "In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation 'under God' is an endorsement of religion. It is a profession of religious belief, namely a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation 'under God' is not a mere acknowledgement that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase 'one nation under God' in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice and -- since 1954 -- monotheism."
The reluctance to distinguish between religion and philosophy is the fatal error in the court's reasoning. It's obvious it won't hold water if you try to apply any other philosophy in the context. If Mr. Newdow were to believe the Earth is flat, would he require his daughter be excused from geography class?
In fact, the court's logic goes to the next, more absurd level. It says if Mr. Newdow were to believe the Earth is flat, globes must be removed from all public school classrooms and no child may be taught geography.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom from discrimination. It does not guarantee that one individual's beliefs may be substituted for the standards by which the society operates.
"Such phrases as 'In God We Trust,' or "under God' have no tendency to establish a religion in this country or to suppress anyone's exercise, or non-exercise, of religion, except in the fevered eye of persons who most fervently would like to drive all tincture of religion out of the public life of our polity," wrote Justice Ferdinand Fernandez in his dissent.
As they say, you've got to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything.
Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.