In class last week, we discussed the controversy of “under God” being included in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on American currency. Many were suggesting that they don’t understand why it is such a big deal and that there bigger things to worry about that what is printed on money and that God is mentioned in the Pledge. So if it isn’t a big deal, why not just take any mention of God out of these aspects of our culture? Though many were suggesting it wasn’t a big deal, few were really quick to say that theses phrases should be taken away. The reason for this is that once something is exists, it is difficult to discard.

In the case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004), the Elk Grove School District teachers led students in saying the Pledge at the beginning of each school day, however, students had the option to not take part. Michael Newdow, an Atheist who doesn’t have custody of his daughter, argued that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, even though it is voluntary, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because of the phrase “under God.” The district court in California dismissed the case because he doesn’t have custody, but when the case was appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, the decision was reversed saying that Newdow did have the right to challenge practices that he felt interfered with his daughters religious teachings.

The Supreme Court held that Newdow did not have standing to bring the case. Because of this, the court didn’t answer the question of whether reciting the Pledge with “under God” in school was constitutional.

While this case didn’t offer a precedent for future cases regarding the constitutionality of “under God,” concurring opinions of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice’s O’Connor and Thomas expressed that teachers and students reciting the Pledge, including “under God,” is not a violation of the Establishment Clause.

It is questionable what the outcome would have been had the court ruled that Newdow had the right to bring the case. Many court rulings, including this one, have indicated that though the Pledge references God, it is purely a patriotic exercise, not a religious one. In writing the opinion of the court, Justice Stevens said:

“As its history illustrates, the Pledge of Allegiance evolved as a common public acknowledgment of the ideals that our flag symbolizes. Its recitation is a patriotic exercise designed to foster national unity and pride in those principles.”

A court case brought to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District (2014), was another attempt by parents and students to end the practice of reciting the Pledge in school because the students were offended by saying and even hearing “under God.” The state court ruled that the practice does not violate the constitution or any state law.

It is up to the student to decide whether they want to take part in saying the Pledge. The outcomes of cases in regards to this argument would likely be different if students were somehow being coerced into taking part in reciting the Pledge. Precedents of court cases indicate that claiming that the practice is offensive because it includes a phrase that doesn’t align with personal beliefs doesn’t mean that it is automatically an infringement of the First Amendment and its religious protections.

Helpful Links:

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004):

https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-1624.ZO.html

Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District

http://masscases.com/cases/sjc/468/468mass64.html

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