Editing Pledge of Allegiance raises constitutional question

Sunday, February 28, 1999

When students in a California high school recently eliminated the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, they stirred new debate about an old argument in American history. Do references to God in patriotic exercises required by schools violate the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion?

According to these students, the answer is: Yes, the words are unconstitutional and should be removed. And since their class was responsible for broadcasting the pledge and the morning announcements to the entire school, everyone got the edited version.

To date, however, the courts don't agree. Despite legal challenges over the years, references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, on U.S. currency and elsewhere have been left undisturbed by judges. These references are viewed by many judges as part of the fabric of American tradition — part of what has been called our “civil religion.”

In the case of the pledge, the tradition isn't all that old. While flag-salute ceremonies in public schools date back to the late 19th century, the words “under God” weren't incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. Responding to the anti-communist fervor of the day, Congress declared that belief in God was the greatest distinction between the free world and Communism and passed a law adding God.

The Cold War wasn't the first time a national crisis had focused attention on the pledge. In 1898, New York passed the first mandatory flag-salute law the day after the United States declared war on Spain. World War I prompted a national campaign to encourage flag-salute laws throughout the nation. During World War II, the Supreme Court first ruled that the flag-salute could be made compulsory for all students. (But then the court changed its collective mind and upheld the First Amendment right of individuals to be excused from the ceremony.)

Ever since Congress added the words “under God,” the Pledge of Allegiance has sparked debate about the meaning of “no establishment” under the First Amendment. One side argues that the phrase doesn't “establish religion” but merely acknowledges the source of our liberty and the foundation of our laws. The other side replies that, if the First Amendment requires the government to be neutral between religion and non-religion, it is hardly appropriate to affirm God in patriotic exercises performed in public schools.

It's a mistake to assume that this is only a debate between religious believers and secularists. A good many religious people oppose government appropriation of their faith. Some even view the whole notion of a “flag salute” as a form of idolatry.

In fact, the first strict separationist in American history wasn't an ACLU lawyer, but Roger Williams, the Puritan minister banished from Massachusetts Bay colony for opposing government involvement in religion. Williams was convinced that when government invokes God, it commits blasphemy.

More than 350 years after the trial of Roger Williams, we're still arguing about the relationship of church and state. Those California students are just the latest voices in a long and sometimes bitter debate.

After two days of broadcasting the revised version of the pledge, officials at that California high school convinced the students to return to the original. That was the right thing to do. If the school district requires recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, then it should be recited as written. Under current law, there's nothing unconstitutional about that.

The students will just have to find another way to argue their case. Of course, any student who can't participate in the flag salute for reasons of conscience may be excused, but the students responsible for leading the pledge shouldn't edit it for everyone else.

Whatever we think about the Pledge of Allegiance, surely we can all agree on this: The flag that those students salute every morning stands for the right of every American to debate openly and freely the meaning of our experiment in liberty.