US reaction to pledge deletion is God-fearing


THE US: The reaction here to a San Francisco court's expurgation of God from the iconic Pledge of Allegiance has been fast, unequivocal, and God-fearing, He will have noted with relief.

Members of the House of Representatives gathered on the steps of Congress collectively to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the unexpurgated version. Then they sang God Bless America. And the Senate, demonstrating an extraordinary alacrity for which it is not known, before the night was out passed unanimously a motion deploring the court's decision.

Yesterday the President got involved, too. The pledge's reference to God, Mr Bush said from the G8 summit in Canada, "is confirmation that we receive our rights from God as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence". He said the country needed "common-sense judges who understand that", and pledged to name such judges to the courts.

This is election season, and everyone remembers how effectively Republicans used a previous Supreme Court decision upholding the right of protesters to burn the flag.

Even staunch defenders of the separation of church and state were somewhat embarrassed by the zeal of the court in ruling on Wednesday that the words "under God" in the pledge, recited by schoolchildren across the country daily and by new citizens as they are sworn in, constituted an endorsement of religion that violated the Constitution.

Lawyers, unlike politicians, accept that the decision does have some legal basis in precedent.

But most believe it is likely to be overturned on the inevitable appeal, by the Supreme Court, whose majority are likely to accept that the words are what the late Justice William Brennan once called "ceremonial deism", and largely devoid of religious connotation. Indeed the words "God save the United States and this honourable court" open each Supreme Court oral argument.

The San Francisco court, which has a jurisdiction over nine western states, said both the 1954 law inserting the words in the pledge and a California school district's policy requiring teachers to lead children in the pledge violate the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a state religion. The 1954 addition was intended to distinguish US values from those of "Godless Russia" at the height of the Cold War.

"A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical . . . to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus', a nation 'under Vishnu', a nation 'under Zeus', or a nation 'under no god', because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion," Judge Alfred Goodwin, an appointee of President Richard Nixon, wrote for the 2-1 majority.

Dissenting, senior Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, a Bush appointee, contended there is only a "minuscule" risk that the use of the phrase "under God" would "bring about a theocracy or suppress someone's beliefs."

At stake was the sense of oppression felt by the daughter of Dr Michael Newdow, a Sacramento casualty doctor and atheist, when her classmates stood for the pledge and she, alone, remained seated and silent. Her right to remain seated had already been established by the Supreme Court, but Dr Newdow convinced the court that the psychological peer pressure on his daughter involved in her solitary stance was, in effect, coercion.

After a federal district judge dismissed his lawsuit, Dr Newdow, who has received death threats, argued the case himself, appealed to the 9th Circuit, the most liberal federal appeals court in the country. Yesterday he insisted that "even if she does not say the words she is still being coerced."