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What Will the Supreme Court Do About the Pledge?

In nine western states covered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, public schools are now barred from including the words "under God" in students' pledge allegiance to the flag.The circuit court’s ruling, re-affirming the judgment of a three-judge panel last June, will be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, where it is likely to and should be overturned.

The Pledge of Allegiance has no ancient lineage. It was drafted as a patriotic gesture by Francis Bellamy in 1892. Bellamy was a Baptist minister and a socialist, whose version was: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Three decades after the Civil War, his intention was not a religious, but a patriotic one, to affirm that the indivisible unity of the nation was a settled issue. His pledge repudiated the treason of those Americans who had recently fought under an alien flag.

Bellamy’s version of the Pledge of Allegiance circulated in public schools and voluntary societies for another three decades. After World War I, when immigration to the United States rose to dramatic numbers, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion convened a National Flag Conference, which gave specificity to Bellamy’s words, "my Flag," by changing them to "the Flag of the United States of America."

In 1940, on the eve of World War II, the United States Supreme Court ruled, by a vote of eight to one, that school boards could compel students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. "National unity is the basis of national security," reasoned Justice Felix Frankfurter. "The flag is a symbol of our national unity." Yet, three years later, by a vote of six to three, the Court reversed itself. In war against totalitarian regimes, which tyrannically enforced devotion to national symbols, western democracies could demonstrate their devotion to "liberty and justice for all" – even those who would not pledge allegiance to their symbols. Today, 26 states require that the pledge of allegiance be said in public schools, but nowhere can a child be forced to say it.

During the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Catholic Knights of Columbus launched a major campaign to add the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sat in the front pew of Washington’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as its pastor, the Reverend George M. Docherty, endorsed the amendment. "Apart from ... the phrase ‘the United States of America,’ it could be the pledge of any republic," said the Presbyterian divine. "I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow."

In February 1954, a bill to add the words "under God" was introduced in Congress and on Flag Day, 14 June, President Eisenhower signed the bill into law. Clearly, the intention of the amendment was to distinguish American values from those of atheistic Communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a fundamentalist Islam which has resorted to terrorism, however, "under God" no longer seems to distinguish us from our enemies abroad.

Moreover, in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the United States Supreme Court ruled that law and government practice may not have a religious purpose. Nor can they advance or promote religion primarily or excessively entangle government and religion. Based on Lemon’s interpretation of the First Amendment’s exclusion of an establishment of religion, the Ninth Circuit ruled that public school districts may not require school children to recite the pledge "under God."

Yet, those words accord well with the non-doctrinal plea of our finest traditions. They pledge us to national loyalty, while recognizing that there is a higher majesty to which all other loyalties must defer. In that spirit, the authors of the Declaration of Independence appealed to the Creator and to "Nature’s God" as authority for their action. In that spirit, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address quoted the Psalmist in saying that "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." In that spirit the Supreme Court hearing the case from the Ninth Circuit will be convened by the words: "God save the United States and this honorable court."