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> Columns > Boston Globe > The War of the Words

The War of the Words

By Cathy Young | July 1, 2002

RELIGION in schools is back in the news, in a big way. Last week, a three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional because it refers to America as ''one nation, under God,'' and hence amounts to establishment of religion by the government. The next day, a divided US Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, that the use of publicly funded school vouchers in parochial schools does not violate the separation of church and state.

The brouhaha over the pledge has been largely an embarrassment for all involved, though it does raise some interesting and difficult issues. Treating the two little words, ''under God,'' as a threat to our liberty may be a wild overreaction; but it is no less ridiculous to treat the 9th Circuit ruling as if it were a grave danger to the republic.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle were quick to deride and denounce the ruling and its authors, with members of Congress actually trooping out on the steps of the Capitol en masse and courageously reciting the pledge. (The cynical, and probably true, explanation is that the Democrats are keen on preventing the Republicans from using the pledge as a campaign issue, and the Republicans are keen on using it anyway.) But many legal experts, including right-of-center scholars such as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, say that the majority opinion was based on logical, if debatable, constitutional reasoning: The disputed words do seem to turn the pledge into a state-sanctioned affirmation of belief in God.

Most experts also agree that the decision - which has been put on hold by the judge who issued it - is likely to be overturned on appeal even before it reaches the Supreme Court. Since the constitutional doctrine and legal precedent can be interpreted either way, the courts are likely to go with the interpretation that seems more sensible and less divisive. Perhaps the decision should be overturned to avoid a nasty culture war over a frivolous issue. Nonetheless, the attitudes voiced in this debate by some critics of the 9th Circuit Court have been rather disturbing.

There has been, for instance, the suggestion that if the recitation of the pledge in its current form excludes children who are being raised in nonreligious homes or in a nontheistic religion such as Buddhism, it's no big deal because people who don't believe in God are a small minority of Americans. And here I thought that in America, even the tiniest minorities have rights that cannot be trampled by majority preferences.

True, children can opt out of reciting the pledge. But teachers, who are required to lead the class in this ritual, cannot. Besides, nonreligious Americans should be able to express their patriotism without professing a belief they don't share. Unfortunately, quite a few commentators on the right seem to be of the opinion that you can't be a good American if you don't believe in God.

The words ''under God'' were originally added to the pledge by an act of Congress in 1954, for the express purpose of underscoring the contrast between ourselves and our Cold War opponents, the ''godless communists'' - of stressing the connection between liberty and religious faith. It's ironic that the debate of the pledge should erupt now, when we are locked in a war in which our principal opponents are driven by religious fanaticism.

Other ironies abound. Thus, liberal critics of the ruling striking down the pledge have argued that in its context, the words ''under God'' have been stripped of any real religious content, made meaningless by rote repetition. But if that's true (and it undoubtedly is), it raises all sorts of disturbing questions about whether the pledge itself is largely meaningless, a rote exercise that does little to teach children about love of country.

The public square, including public schools, should not be purged of all religious statement. A high school student should be able to talk publicly about his faith - as long as such statement is not sponsored by the school.

As for vouchers, parents who choose to send their children to religious schools should be entitled to the same share of public money as parents whose children attend government-funded secular schools. But no one should be forced or pressured to participate in a ritual that affirms faith in God. Freedom of choice - what could be more American?

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