Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister, drafted the Pledge of Allegiance in August 1892. He hoped that the pledge would be used as a demonstration of loyalty. Congress added the words “under God” to mark the distinction of the United States from the atheist Soviet Union in 1954 (Nobleman, 2004). Several states require that public schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day. In the modern world, the alterations, including the addition of “under God,” have become a contentious issue. For instance, atheists have come out to challenge the pledge as discriminating against non-believers. They argue that the words violate the First Amendment by enforcing religious beliefs and creating a national religion. The First Amendment prevents states or government from interfering with or imposing a religion. Despite religious issues, the Pledge of Allegiance serves to instill patriotism, respect, and a sense of responsibility in the U.S. citizens rather than enforce a state religion.
Summary of the Case
In the case Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004), Michael Newdow’s daughter attended one of the kindergartens of the Elk Grove Unified School District. Schools in California start the day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. As mentioned above, the American Pledge of Allegiance ends with “under God” added by the United States Congress in 1954. Newdow sued the Elk Grove Unified School District in the Federal District Court in California. He argued that making students listen to or recite these words violated their First Amendment rights. The District Court dismissed Newdow’s case, stating that he could not make decisions in this matter because he and his daughter’s mother were not married (Prouser, 2005). The Court discovered that Newdow had no custody over his daughter as the family court had awarded physical custody to daughter’s mother, Sandra Banning. Newdow decided to appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that reversed the earlier decision in Newdow’s favor. The Court found that Newdow had a right to appeal to a practice that interfered with his daughter’s religious education. It also held that adding “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the First Amendment (Prouser, 2005).
Further, the Elk Grove Unified School District appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court that reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal. It found that the girl’s mother had custody to decide what is best for her. The Supreme Court also found that the family court had given the rights to the girl’s mother to make all decisions. Sandra Banning wanted the daughter to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and have a Christian upbringing, stating that she was a Christian. However, the Court did not rule whether the reciting of the Pledge, including “under God,” violated the First Amendment clause. It affirmed that the Pledge was constitutional without addressing the issue of the First Amendment rights (Prouser, 2005).
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The Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow case went through three courts. Newdow first sued the Elk Grove Unified School District in the federal court in California. The District Court dismissed Newdow’s complaint, stating that his custody over his daughter was limited. The mother had a full custody over the girl. Sandra Banning supported the school’s Pledge of Allegiance policy. Therefore, Newdow’s case had no merit.
Afterward, Newdow appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeal, which ruled in his favor. The Court answered two main questions. First, Newdow had a right to decide the religious education of the daughter. Second, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the First Amendment clause.
The Elk Grove Unified School District appealed to the Supreme Court, which found that Sandra Banning had no objections to the school policy. The Court also discovered that the family court’s decision giving Sandra Banning authority over her daughter meant that Newdow had limited rights to making decisions concerning the girl’s education. The Supreme Court also held that the pledge was constitutional.
Decision of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Elk Grove Unified School District. It also ruled in a 5-3 vote that the Pledge of Allegiance was constitutional. In the decision, the Court found that the pledge was ceremonial and was a sign of patriotism. It also used the family court’s ruling to dismiss Newdow’s complaint. The Court upheld that the mother was right, as she was a final decision maker. Banning did not object to the Pledge and wanted her daughter to have a Christian upbringing. However, the Court did not give a ruling on the constitutionality of the words “under God” as contained in the Pledge.
Impact on the American Society
The Supreme Court was expected to rule if the Pledge violated individual rights as outlined in the First Amendment. It ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance was constitutional but did not address the pertinent issue. The decision made by the Supreme Court has caused religious divisions and increased tensions between the two groups of people. The first group supports the use of words “under God” in the Pledge as a sign of patriotism and appreciation of the nation’s foundation (Dixon, 2009). It holds a view similar to the one of the judges of the Supreme Court, Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Thomas, who saw the voluntary pledge as a sign of patriotism. The Pledge of Allegiance is majorly recited during parades, government meetings, memorials, and sporting activities where the American flag is hoisted. The reciting is done on patriotic grounds and it is not intended to enforce a religion. This group also argues that the United States is a democracy, which makes it unlikely that the government would want to impose a religion. The second group of individuals such as Newdow views it as an attempt to instill Christian beliefs in their children (Dixon, 2009). Recently, more people have challenged the constitutionality of adding “under God” in the Pledge. For example, in the Circle School versus Pappert (2004) and Croft versus Perry, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals came up with a similar decision (Armstrong, 2011). Therefore, as long as the Supreme Court continues to delay the judgment, the issue will continue to cause division and conflicts between believers and atheists.
The decision of the Supreme Court also raises ethical questions. In this case, the question is whether it ethical for schools to mandate students to start the day with a Pledge of Allegiance. Children of parents with atheist beliefs may face bullying and victimization in schools where the majority of students is from religious backgrounds. As a result, students can start skipping the reciting, which will separate them from the rest of the students. Therefore, schools should deal with the dilemma of addressing the needs of not only the majority but also the minority. As the children follow their parent’s religious beliefs and decisions, the schools should ensure that children with atheist beliefs are not victimized.
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Pledge of Allegiance as a Sign of Respect for the United States
The recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance is a sign of respect, patriotism, and duty to the United States. The words “under God” do not enforce religious beliefs on the audience; rather, it demonstrates the foundation of the United States. Schools require that elementary students recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily before classes. The practice instills the right values in the children, which helps them to become responsible citizens in the future. Furthermore, it is voluntary and parents cannot claim that their children’s rights are violated. Therefore, parents can ask their children to skip reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. They can also ask children to skip saying “under God” while reciting the Pledge.
As such, attacking the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance can be described as a sign of religious intolerance. Such individuals would argue that churches in their communities violate their First Amendment rights. Public schools are community facilities with children from various backgrounds, cultures, and religious affiliations. Therefore, the views of the majority should be allowed to prevail in schools. At the same time, the minorities are free to skip such practices as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. However, they should not enforce their beliefs on the rest of the students.
Recitation of the Pledge in Public Schools
All public schools, including elementary and high schools, should be allowed to recite the Pledge of Allegiance before the classes. First, the schools benefit from public funds, making them subject to public policies, including the Pledge of Allegiance. Second, to mold patriotic citizens, children should understand and appreciate the origin and foundation of the United States. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance should be viewed from an educational and not religious perspective. Children should learn the history of the United States, including its foundation, wars, and factors leading to the Congress decision. The Pledge is a sign of respect to numerous challenges that the founders had to overcome to build a stable nation where individuals can enjoy various freedoms.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow case has long-term ramifications on related cases and religious tensions in the United States. Newdow lost the case on custody grounds. However, the Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of the words “under God” and their impact on the First Amendment. Thus, it will be under increased pressure to decide the legality of the words “under God” in the future as similar cases arise. The Pledge of Allegiance is a sign of patriotism and respect rather than a prayer or religious oath. Therefore, schools should be allowed to recite it before the school day starts. However, individual students whose parents are atheists can skip the practice or keep quiet while other students recite the Pledge.