WASHINGTON — Under the stony gazes of Moses and Muhammad, the Supreme Court opened its Wednesday session as any other. The spectators — many of whom had waited in long lines to attend the historic arguments — rose to their feet as the justices filed into the pillared chamber and a marshal proclaimed the court’s traditional rhetoric: “God save the United States and this honorable court.”
In a room built to immortalize many of history’s great thinkers — a number of them from religious traditions — the court began to weigh the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the pledge millions of school children recite daily.
In a case out of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — the district known for its controversial verdicts and most often overturned by the Supreme Court, Michael Newdow, an atheist father, sued his 9-year-old daughter’s school district over its mandate that students recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Also embroiled in a legal battle for custody of the child, the physician and lawyer represented himself in front of the eight justices and one empty chair. Newdow had requested that Justice Antonin Scalia recuse himself from the case because of a recent speech Scalia gave on the issue.
Citing the government’s foundation in Christianity, Newdow said he had no problems with occasional acknowledgements of national religious history, but he does have a problem with what he said was a government-sponsored body coercing his daughter to accept a particular faith.
“Every school morning my daughter is asked to stand up, face that flag, and say that her father is wrong,” he told the court.
California, like Missouri, is one of 35 states that require the pledge to be said in schools, though individual students are allowed to opt out of the ritual. Critics of the current law say that schoolchildren who do opt out can feel ostracized and that requiring educators to lead children in a pledge referring to God is a violation of law separating church and state.
The pledge was first established in 1892 under President Benjamin Harrison. In 1954, at the height of the Cold War and after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus to emphasize the nation’s founding principles, Congress added the words “under God.”
In its consideration of the current case, the Supreme Court is expected to weigh the merits of the pledge rituals against part of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from declaring and supporting a national religion.
According to Elk Grove School District in California near Sacramento, the phrase is merely a nod to the nation’s history. The district’s attorney, Terry Cassidy, contends that the pledge is one of many influences upon pupils. For example, he told the court, children also learn about the protections of religious freedom in the Declaration of Independence.
“They don’t say the pledge and go home,” he said.
This is not the first time the pledge has been brought to court attention — both Pennsylvania and Colorado have seen legal challenges pledge statutes similar to California’s. In addition to the 35 states that require students to say the pledge every day, five states have laws that encourage students to recite the oath and 10 states have a pledge to their own state flag. Texas is only state that requires students to say a state pledge in addition to the U.S. pledge.
An August ruling in a Colorado district court blocked the law mandating that students recite the pledge in schools, as did a July ruling in a Pennsylvania district court.
While states have historically held much of the power over rules on pledge recitation, the Supreme Court’s decision on this case could overrule those laws.
The majority of United States citizens today proclaim themselves Christian, and government officials have historically supported the presence of Christian references in everyday life.
Americans see phrases of faith on their money, find religious images in public architecture, and many arms of the government open each session with prayers or oratory that cites the presence of a higher being — traditionally the Christian God. As for the pledge, the 1954 “under God” amendment passed Congress unanimously.
In the current case, government officials have followed historic paths — both sides of Congress have overwhelmingly passed motions supporting the pledge as it is, and all 50 attorneys general, including Missouri’s Jay Nixon, appealed the court to uphold current law, saying “the 9th Circuit’s decision defies a nation.”
Christian followers were also out in full force on the Court’s front steps Wednesday, singing hymns and praying to support religion in their children’s lives.
Sandra Banning, the mother of the girl involved in the case, describes herself as a born-again Christian, and although she does not object to Newdow — whom she never married — arguing the case, she does not support his position.
“I hope and pray that they will support our history, the traditions of your nation and the values we hold dear,” Banning said outside the courtroom.
“Parents have a duty to protect and defend their children,” said the mother as she explained her daughter’s absence at the event.
Newdow also expressed concern at the potential negative effect the publicity would have on his daughter, but he told the justices he felt it was his duty as a parent to uphold the Constitution, particularly in the face of such a divisive issue. He said he hoped his daughter, whom he encourages to explore Christianity and other faiths, would be proud of him.
According to the Cassidy, 14 Supreme Court justices have distinguished ceremonial activities, such as the pledge, from completely religious exercises, such as prayer. In essence, he says, the pledge is a civic exercise that promotes patriotism, not religion.
Many atheist and non-Christian groups object to that argument, concurring with Newdow’s sentiment that such a repeated statement is actually an “affirmation of belief.” Some Christians also find that notion troubling, suggesting that asking millions of children to speak of God each day in a non-religious sense is to promote large-scale blasphemy.
The court is expected to release its opinion around the end of its term, in June.