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March 27, 2004
Column #1,178

                          Is America A Nation "Under God?"

         "God save the United States and this honorable court."

          With that prayer opening the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices gathered to hear Dr. Michael Newdow, a physician and a lawyer, argue that his daughter ought not be subjected to beginning her school day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase, "one nation under God."

         He argued that the phrase "under God" which schools ask children to repeat, promotes a religious belief that God exists and that ours is a nation "under" Him - which, as an atheist, he profoundly disagrees with.

         Newdow, who took the unusual step of defending his own case before the Court, argued, "I am an atheist. I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say her father is wrong."

        Justice Sandra Day O'Connor interrupted, "Well, she does have a right not to participate."

        Newdow cited a case in which the Court declared prayer in school as unconstitutional, saying, "under Lee v. Weisman she's clearly coerced to participate."

        O'Connor interjected, "That was a prayer."

        Newdow: "Well, I'm not sure this isn't a prayer." He noted that President Bush said that in asking citizens to pledge allegiance to "one nation under God," they are participating "in an important American tradition of humbly seeking the wisdom and blessing..."

        However, Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued that the phrase is simply "an acknowledgment of the religious basis of the framers of the Constitution, who believed not only that the right to revolt, but that the right to vest power in the people to create government came as a result of religious principles."

         As the Declaration of Independence says, "All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." George Washington wrote to his Continental Army, "The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army."

        Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, declared "that this Nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." Our national motto, minted on coins for a century is "in God we trust."

        America has always perceived itself as being "under God." It is a simple statement of historical fact.

        O'Connor asked Newdow, "Do you have a problem with `In God we trust,' on coins?"

        "Only if my daughter is forced to say, `In God We Trust,'" the father replied gamely.

         Seven of the eight justices appeared skeptical. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, commented: "It's two words sandwiched in the middle of something, and the child doesn't have to say those words."

         Justice David Souter, argued that "As a religious affirmation, it is so tepid, so diluted, so far from a compulsory prayer that in fact it should be, in effect, beneath the constitutional radar."

         Newdow disagreed: "For the government to come in and say, 'We've decided for you this is inconsequential or unimportant is an arrogant pretension."

         Souter replied that the government is not "defining this as inconsequential for you." Rather in our secular society, "whatever is distinctively religious as an affirmation is simply lost."

          Newdow protested, "That is a view that you may choose to take and the majority of Americans may choose to take. But when I see the flag and I think of pledging allegiance, it's like I'm getting slapped in the face."

          Justice Stephen Breyer argued that the Pledge "serves a purpose of unification at the price of offending a small number of people like you."

          Chief Justice William Rehnquist asked Newdow what the vote was of Congress to adopt the "under God" phrase.

           "It was apparently unanimous," the doctor replied.

           "Well, that doesn't sound divisive," proclaimed the Chief Justice.

           "That's only because no atheist can get elected to public office!" he fired back, sparking laughter and a rare burst of applause, infuriating Rehnquist.

            As adept as Newdow was on his feet, he's personally inept. He never did marry his daughter's mother, Sandra Banning. California courts have given her, not him, the right to make decisions about her upbringing. Neither Ms. Banning nor her daughter object to saying the Pledge. And, as her brief in the case put it, "Mr. Newdow is not able to co-parent as evidenced by his decision to involve the child in a lawsuit without Ms. Banning's consent."

           An AP poll found nine of ten Americans favor retaining the "under God" phrase. I predict the Supreme Court will agree.

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