Is the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional?
Because the Supreme Court most likely will hear a Pledge of Allegiance appeal, ask your students to follow newspaper coverage of the Judiciary Committee's vote this week on the nomination of Judge John Roberts as Chief Justice and the vote in the full Senate the following week. Ask them to find any references in Roberts' testimony about his views on the issue.
President Bush is likely to announce a nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor soon after the confirmation vote for Roberts. Have them check the newspapers for stories speculating on possible nominees, then study stories about the nominee once she or he is identified. Will that nominee move the court further to the right and what effect might that have on a decision about the "under God" phrase in the pledge. Will the nominee be a woman? Is that important?
The "under God" phrase was added to the pledge during a time of threat from outside enemies, during a time of challenge from on racial issues and during a time of shifting population centers, changing culture and the emergence of non-traditional lifestyles. Ask your students to scour their newspapers for stories about all of these issues and have them write an essay comparing today in America with the 1950's. Ask them to discuss ways today's Americans can avoid what the students see as mistakes made half a century ago.
Last week's ruling by a California federal judge concluding that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion has re-ignited a firestorm that burned across the country three years ago. The judge, Lawrence Karlton, explained that he was bound by a 2002 U.S. Ninth Circuit Court ruling that forbid the recitation of the pledge, even if not compulsory, on the grounds that it "impermissibly coerces a religious act" and "places students in the untenable position of choosing between participating in an exercise with religious content, or protesting."
The day after the decision, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would appeal to the Supreme Court. If the high court accepts the case, John Roberts, whose confirmation hearings as Chief Justice continue this week, may well be in place to help decide the issue.
Only in America The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a man named Francis Bellamy -- an unusual but utterly American combination -- both a Baptist preacher and a crusading Socialist. In its original form, the pledge read: I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It was first published in a children's magazine in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World. Bellamy had considered including the word "equality" but decided not to because, according to Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, he knew that many Americans at the time opposed equality for women and blacks.
Pledge & castor oil Battles over the Pledge of Allegiance itself -- even before the controversial phrase was added by Congress in 1954 -- were violent. Seventy years ago, three Jehovah Witnesses children in Minersville, Pa., refused to recite the pledge, saying their church considered the flag a graven image. They were expelled from school and two of them, Lillian and William Gobitis, took the case to court. Five years later, on June 3, 1940, as the country worried that it would be pulled into another world war, the case reached the Supreme Court. The court ruled against the children, and for some reason that decision was seen by a few mobs and one sheriff as permission to attack Witnesses. Six days after the ruling was issued, 2,500 people sacked and burned a Jehovah Witnesses church in Maine. A week later, in Litchfield, Ill., 60 Witnesses were attacked and -- for their own safety -- were lodged in the town jail. Before the month was over, the Richwood, W. Va., police chief rounded up seven Witn esses, stuck them in the middle of a mass recital of the pledge, forced them to consume vast quantities of castor oil and marched them out of town. In 1942, Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance. After hundreds of Jehovah Witnesses students had been expelled from schools, the Supreme Court reversed its 1940 ruling, deciding that school children could not be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Justice Robert Jackson wrote, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
Congress & God The "under God " phrase was added to the pledge by a joint resolution of Congress in 1954 after a year of campaigning by the Catholic men's group, the Knights of Columbus, and very soon after a Feb. 7, 1954, sermon delivered to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and attended by the national press corps. In the sermon, the Rev. George Docherty lamented the lack of a reference to God in the pledge. "Apart from the mention of the United States of America," he preached, "it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow." After the service, Eisenhower said he agreed with the sermon, and three days later Pennsylvania-born Sen. Homer Ferguson of Michigan introduced a bill to add "under God" to the pledge. It was approved on June 8; on June 14, Flag Day, a pleased president signed the bill into law. "From this day forward," he said, "the millions of our school children will daily proclaim the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."
In God We Trust Apparently deciding that piety was good politics, Congress in 1955 voted to inscribe "In God We Trust" on all paper money and coins. In 1956, the Congress replaced the national motto -- E pluribus unum (from many, one) -- with "In God We Trust." The phrase first appeared on coins in 1864 after a Pennsylvania minister, alarmed by Union losses in the Civil War, wrote to Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and asked him to arrange to have God recognized on the nation's coins. "From my heart, I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disaster," the Rev. M.R. Watkinson wrote.
And why? What was happening in America that prompted those 1954, 1955 and 1956 congressional actions? It was a time of great social, cultural, political and international upheaval. In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists shot and wounded five congressmen on the floor of the U.S. House. What commonly was referred to as godless Communism was on the march and some Americans, enflamed by the notorious McCarthy hearings, were accusing each other of being communists. Only the year before, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as spies for the Soviet Union, which two months later exploded its first hydrogen bomb. In 1954, the civil rights revolution was galvanized by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling banning racial desegregation in public schools. The decision prompted the erection of billboards even in the North demanding the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and Martin Luther King Jr. became a national force after leading a boycott of the bus system. In 1956, the city desegregated the buses. Traditional city-rural lines began to blur as families moved to something new called the suburbs. In 1954, for the third year in a row, the best-selling book on nonfiction lists was the Bible. That was the same year a Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley recorded his breakthrough song, "That's All Right" and rock n' roll was born, much to the consternation of scandalized clergymen who condemned the music and the gyrating dances as evil. Ed Sullivan wouldn't invite Presley on his show until 1956 and then refused to allow the camera to show him from the waist down. Rebels were glorified. Marlon Brando's "The Wild One," a movie about motorcycle hoodlums terrorizing a town, was released in 1954 and widely banned because there was no retribution against the gang in the film. James Dean made both "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause" in 1955. Beatniks, including Jack Kerouac, populated New York's Lower East Side and rejoiced challenging traditional values and confounding Middle America with their lifestyle. Great change, and especially many simultaneous great changes, commonly cause great angst. And so perhaps it is not surprising that Americans, reaching to reassure themselves of their national identity, started invoking God in their Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, in their national motto and on all their money.
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