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Under God?

A fight is being waged to edit God from the Pledge of Allegiance

By John W. Kennedy

Some Christians believe this is the line in the sand. Already battered by the removal of a multitude of Judeo-Christian symbols from public places — everything from crosses in parks to Ten Commandments displays on courthouse lawns — now there is the possibility that uttering the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance will be illegal in public school classrooms.

If Judicial activists are allowed to continue their tactics unbridled, some Christians say, nothing — not even the U.S. Constitution itself — will be safe from tampering.

Michael A. Newdow, the atheist litigant in the pending Pledge of Allegiance case before the U.S. Supreme Court, admits that his goal is the removal of God’s name from all public venues. Even the recent practice of singing “God Bless America” at major league baseball games is anathema to Newdow. He also has sued evangelist Franklin Graham for mentioning Jesus during President George W. Bush’s inauguration.

Could the Supreme Court really overturn a law passed overwhelmingly by Congress only a little more than a year ago? A majority of justices who found a constitutional right to homosexual sex in homes last year may need little incentive to remove God from schools.

While various Christian groups are lining up to battle what they view as a political Armageddon, others say it’s too little, too late. They believe the irreligious commandeered American society years ago, and religious expression has been too compromised for too long. To them, the solution won’t be found in court orders but rather at church altars.

Half a century ago, blending faith and patriotism stirred little dissent when Congress approved insertion of “under God” between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” in the pledge. In 1955, a year after endorsing “under God,” Congress directed that coins be imprinted with “In God we trust” and the following year adopted the same phrase as the national motto.

A Baptist minister-turned-magazine-writer wrote the original Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 as a patriotic recitation for schoolchildren on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in America. But in the midst of the Cold War, the Knights of Columbus, the nation’s largest Catholic laymen’s organization, urged Congress to add the words “under God,” which had been part of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Kevin J. Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., says the incorporation distinguished the American and Soviet systems, which offered differing visions of freedom and human nature.

Hasson, who authored a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Knights of Columbus in the current case, says the American view held that humans have infinite worth because the Creator endowed us with certain inalienable rights. The Soviet Union taught that the state is the highest power and could revoke rights at will.

“This is a terribly important case because it raises the question of where our rights come from,” Hasson, 46, told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. “If you can’t say ‘one nation under God,’ then you ought logically not be able to recite the Declaration of Independence, either. If you forbid people from saying where our rights come from, the whole system falls apart.”

Newdow brought suit against the Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified School District, where his daughter attended second grade in 2000. In response to a Jehovah’s Witnesses lawsuit, the Supreme Court decided in 1943 that schoolchildren couldn’t be forced to participate in the recitation. But Newdow, a lawyer and emergency room physician, claims that just listening to the “daily indoctrination” of “religious dogma” injures his impressionable child.

A year and a half ago, two of the three judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. They ruled that the pledge is unconstitutional because it professes a religious belief in monotheism, thereby amounting to a government endorsement of religion and violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The panel declared that it is akin to proclaiming the United States is a nation “under Vishnu” or “under Zeus.” The ban is on hold pending the school district’s appeal.

Congress, in late 2002, passed legislation reinforcing support for the words “under God” in the pledge, drawing unanimous support in the Senate and only five dissenting votes in the 435-member House of Representatives.

Arguments could be heard as early as next month, with a decision expected by June. Ironically, the Knights of Columbus may play a pivotal role in the outcome. Antonin Scalia recused himself from taking part after Newdow cited a speech the justice gave to the Knights of Columbus in which he criticized the 9th Circuit decision. If the outcome is a 4-4 deadlock, the 9th Circuit decision would stand, but it would have no precedential value.

“The school district is a proponent of the pledge in its present form,” says Terence J. Cassidy, the Sacramento lawyer retained by the school district to argue the case before the Supreme Court. “We believe allowing students to willingly and voluntarily recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a daily patriotic exercise is not a violation of the Establishment Clause.”

In any regard, Cassidy says Newdow’s daughter is a Christian who recites the pledge daily.

“The mere hearing of other students reciting the pledge is not and does not coerce them into a particular religious belief system,” Cassidy, 48, told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

Newdow and the girl’s mother, Sandra Banning, never married. So, although Newdow in September gained joint custody of the child, he doesn’t have final decision-making authority over his daughter, according to Cassidy. As such, the Supreme Court could decide he lacks standing to even bring suit. But a similar case no doubt would crop up again soon somewhere else.

Cassidy says it would be a travesty if the Court prevented certain students — those in nine Western states covered by the 9th Circuit — from reciting the pledge as part of a patriotic exercise while students in the rest of the country had no such restrictions.

One group, Grassfire, is predicting this as a benchmark verdict. In October, the Maxwell, Iowa-based organization delivered more than half a million petitions supporting the pledge to the Supreme Court.

“This case hits a nerve with the American people like few others,” says Steve Elliott, president of the organization. “Most of us went to a public school where we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day.”

While e-mail responses have been the most popular form of protest, Grassfire delivered more than 50,000 faxes and personal letters to each of the nine Supreme Court justices.

Unless those who truly believe God belongs in the pledge speak up, Elliott believes, atheists and secularists will further escalate their campaign to strip all vestiges of God from public life.

“To have ‘in God we trust’ on our money is an important and powerful symbol because it puts us under God, where America is safe and secure,” Elliott, 39, maintains. “To acknowledge God in the public square is an extremely important symbol.”

Elliott’s group is committed to keeping pressure on the Supreme Court. In addition to petition deliveries and letter-writing campaigns, the Common Good Legal Defense Fund is filing a friend of the court brief on behalf of Grassfire to which protesters can add their names directly.

Regarding the case, Elliott finds it incongruous that the Supreme Court opens every session with an official proclaiming “God save the United States and this honorable Court” and that a frieze of Moses hangs over the chamber. “We’re saying there is no mandate for a secular society in America,” Elliott says. “If we get a favorable decision, this could really turn the tide on whether America will be a secular state.”

All U.S. founding documents recognize a higher authority as the source of our rights, Elliott says. He maintains that the final authority rests with the people and that judges are in place to serve the Constitution.

Of course, justices who are appointed for life don’t face the same kind of reality check that lawmakers do with an electorate.

And redefining laws isn’t confined to the Supreme Court. “The ruling of the 9th Circuit finding the words ‘under God’ unconstitutional brought to critical mass the whole judicial activist boogeyman that seems to be prowling the pages of our Constitution,” says Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Association’s Center for Law and Policy in Tupelo, Miss.

Fahling, 45, says the decision is borne from 50 years of jurisprudence in which there has been a systematic effort to stamp out the presence of Christianity in the public square. The 9th Circuit is merely applying sweeping U.S. Supreme Court precedents that have reshaped society, he says.

“The Supreme Court likes to make broad social policy announcements and inform us all of how wrong we’ve been for centuries,” Fahling says. “If this decision is reversed, it’s only because the Supreme Court believes we haven’t been sufficiently anesthetized yet to accept such a decree.”

The AFA is supporting the Religious Liberties Restoration Act introduced in August by U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado. The statute would nullify the authority of federal courts to review cases dealing with the Pledge of Allegiance, the national motto and public displays of the Ten Commandments. Such a “repealer” statute requires only a simple majority, but a later Congress could repeal it.

Earlier the AFA had spearheaded a constitutional amendment drive, which would have a lasting impact but be much more difficult to accomplish, requiring two-thirds ratification by both Congress and individual state legislatures to become law.

Assemblies of God leaders who work with young people on school campuses say it is becoming an increasing challenge to convey a Christ-centered message.

“Institutions of higher learning were originally created to establish God as the foundation for all human endeavor,” says Ron Barnard, Chi Alpha district director based at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. “Yet today we’re seeing a generation of college students who have no real sense of purpose or reason for being.”

Even many Christian students are indecisive about their beliefs, Barnard says, because they are continually bombarded with relative truth messages that no religious system is better than another. If the government is allowed to eliminate the “under God” clause, it means that humans have elevated themselves to a position of authority above God, according to Barnard. On campus, Barnard repeatedly stresses Ephesians 2:10, to remind Christian students that they are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.

Youth Alive is an Assemblies of God program that empowers students to be missionaries on their campuses through training events, motivational assemblies and interdenominational clubs. Tom Bachman, a Youth Alive missionary in Albany, Ore., hopes the high court doesn’t outlaw an oath that students have recited their entire lives.

“It would be one more step of removing God en route to becoming an atheistic society,” says Bachman, who talks to an average of 15,000 middle and high school students annually. “Under God is the heritage of who we are as Americans.”

While Bachman, 40, concedes that organized school prayers didn’t necessarily bring a sense of righteousness to the hearers, he is troubled that a few activists such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair — who filed the suit that led to the Supreme Court in 1962 banning school-sponsored prayer — and Newdow have been able to unduly influence the nation. “The church has got to get to the place where we become the loud majority and not the silent majority,” Bachman says.

Kent Hulbert, a Youth Alive missionary based in Waupaca, Wis., says many of the 35,000 students he sees each year are searching for a framework of truth, and removal of “under God” from the pledge would be a destabilizing factor in stripping away the foundation on which the nation began.

“There’s an ever-increasing push to push God out of our culture altogether,” says Hulbert, 38. “In that vacuum the doors to all sorts of false religions have opened.”

Hulbert says everything is relative in a nation built on tolerance of false religions, homosexuality and abortion. With no absolute standards of right and wrong, young people are frustrated and skeptical of adults’ motives, he says.

According to Hulbert, the removal of “under God” would be yet another blow contributing to the wane of Christian influence in public schools that started with the removal of organized prayer.

“Students aren’t really transformed by reciting the pledge, but it gives them a connection point to their country,” Hulbert says. “It should have us concerned because the whole shape of our government has been framed by God. It is that freedom under God that made this country so great.”

Courts still allow phrases such as “in God we trust” on currency based on the rationale that they have historical rather than spiritual significance. For instance, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has written that such “ceremonial deism” is tolerable because everyone understands it really doesn’t hold any religious meaning anymore.

Charles E. Hackett, executive director of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions, hopes the high court keeps “under God” in the pledge. He’d also like to see organized prayer restored to public schools. But those acts wouldn’t remedy what ails America, Hackett says.

“Our problem is Christians who don’t live as Christians ought to live,” Hackett says. “All kinds of laws can be changed that we think are pro-Christian, but if the heart of the church isn’t changed, it’s not going to make a difference in our society. The church, and only the church, is in charge of the spiritual level of this nation. It is not in the hands of the courts, or Congress or the White House.”

Hackett doesn’t see the pledge decision as some sort of spiritual litmus test. He contends the church lost its public influence long ago, and as a result a plethora of unbiblical decrees are now enforced.

“We are where we are spiritually in this nation not because of bad laws but because of a backslidden church,” Hackett says. “If the Court rules against ‘under God’ there will be some outcries and hand-wringing, but it will produce no repentance. It is repentance by the church that will bring revival.”

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John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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