(RNS) Yet another Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit has been filed, this time with New Jersey humanists challenging the requirement that each school day begin with recitation of the pledge describing the United States as one nation, “under God.”

This case joins a bevy of previous cases that have wended their way through the courts, costing school districts and states millions of taxpayer dollars and contributing to bitter disputes across the country. To date, the Supreme Court has studiously avoided ruling on such cases, but if this continues, eventually, the court will be required to join the fray.

I am always sorry to see these cases: On the one hand, I am sympathetic with the students and parents who do not want their children indoctrinated in religion by a government, even with a very general declaration of the existence of God. (And I am always disappointed that so many people who vehemently insist that government is incompetent want government to lead prayer.)

I am also sympathetic that current law, which permits a student who objects to the pledge to sit quietly, without standing or reciting it, is not entirely adequate. Repeatedly, states and school districts have ignored these limits, and even when enforced, students face enormous peer pressure to participate in this civic exercise.

This concerned Thomas Jefferson when he explained his reasons for refusing to issue a proclamation for a national day of fasting and prayer during a national crisis. Jefferson understood that such a proclamation would have no sanction; those who refused to join in public prayer would face no fine or imprisonment. Still, he was adamant that a proclamation would violate the words and spirit of the First Amendment by creating “some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion” against those who did not participate.

Jefferson understood that the government had no business promoting religion or even suggesting that those who did not believe in God, or some other particular of religion, were somehow less patriotic or less committed citizens. (This is even truer with schoolchildren.)

In the Jeffersonian tradition, we should not force any citizen, much less a child, to choose between making a religious declaration and appearing to be unpatriotic and facing the negative opinion of his or her peers.

And it is worth remembering that the pledge originally written in 1892 did not include the “under God” language. It was only added in 1954, not coincidentally in the midst of the Red Scare and McCarthyism and the effort to distinguish our nation, supported by God, from the “godless communists.”

At the same time, as a lawyer, historian, parent and citizen, I wonder whether a lawsuit is the best way to resolve these disputes. In addition to wasting enormous amounts of tax dollars and time, the litigation risks further dividing Americans, forcing us to “choose sides” against one another.

For some time, I have been enamored by a suggestion by Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager in their book “Religious Freedom and the Constitution”: Why not have two “proper” forms of the pledge, one saying “under God” and one saying “under law,” and permit students to choose which they prefer?

I realize that this would not solve all the problems. Certainly, those wishing not to “pledge allegiance” to any earthly form would still be exempt. Nor do I mean to suggest that the parents who are complaining should not have their day in court.

When the Bill of Rights was being debated, Jefferson and James Madison argued that one of the primary reasons that we needed a Bill of Rights was to permit the courts to protect us against overbearing legislators.

John Ragosta photo courtesy of Hamilton College

John Ragosta, author of “Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed” (University of Virginia Press, 2013) and “Wellspring of Liberty” (Oxford, 2010), is a resident fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Photo courtesy of Hamilton College


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A little rational compromise, though, would go a long way not only in protecting the legitimate rights of students, but in contributing to a sense of national unity rather than division, something we could sorely use. Since that is what the pledge is intended to do, perhaps it is time to seek a compromise rather than continuing the fight in the courts.

(John Ragosta, author of “Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed” (University of Virginia Press, 2013) and “Wellspring of Liberty” (Oxford, 2010), is a resident fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.)

23 Comments

  1. Yes there can be a rational compromise. Take out the late unnecessary additional words “Under God”. There is no compelling reason for it to stay in our post godless-commie world. It was added in a pique of national panic, it can be taken out just as easily.

      • It’s simply untrue for “Doc” to claim sufficient Americans would be upset at deleting the recent changes to the Pledge of Allegiance to cause his hoped for “national panic.” Most Americans are very tired at the tiny minority who are still trying to force their fundamentalist “beliefs” onto all Americans.

    • The compromise is to continue saying the pledge, but without the offensive words “under god”. The pledge should serve to unite all Americans, not just those who believe in some god.

      • One day, while in the third grade, our daughter stood and respectfully faced the flag while the Peldge was recited. The substitute teacher noticed that she had not spoken and ordered her to go to the front of the class and recite the Pledge. After a moment’s deliberation, our daughter did so just to get through the situation. However, she omitted the words “under God.” Again, the sub noticed and demanded to know why. She responded, “My family doesn’t say the Pledge. And, anyway, those words were not in the original Pledge of Allegiance but were added in during the McCarthy era.” For this honest and lawful response, she was humiliated by being sent to the principal’s office. Luckily, the principal knows the law and was horrified. She reassured our daughter, returned her to class, and later did some re-education with the sub. (I’m sure visions of impending lawsuits were racing through her mind.) I for one hope the court will rule on this, or that our lawmakers will return the Pledge to its original wording.

  2. The Great God Pan

    I don’t remember anyone taking the Pledge all that seriously when I was in school–we might as well have been reciting a passage from “Jabberwocky”–and I doubt that most of today’s kids regard it as anything other than a meaningless ritual, either.

    But for those who do think that students pay any attention to the actual content of the Pledge, I don’t see how there is any way to resolve the issue outside of the courts. You propose a compromise but you don’t say anything about how it would come to be implemented. Obviously those who think everyone should say “under God” are not going to give up on that without being forced to. Why would they accept your proposed compromise when they already have their way?

  3. If the advocates of the Pledge would explore its origin they would find it was composed (sans “under God”) by a Christian Socialist in 1892. He believed such a pledge for children would create good citizens; it was an attempt at social engineering.. He edited a magazine for children and used it to push for the use of the pledge. He would be tickled pink to see how widely it was used and how those children grew up to be adults still saying his pledge. Now it’s even enshrined in law and a part of nearly every government event or meeting. Imagine a Christian Socialist shaping the behavior of government and millions of citizens.
    Here’s what another Christian Socialist, Episcopal bishop Franklin Spencer Spalding of Utah had to say: “… men cannot be made right until the material conditions be made right. Although man cannot live by bread alone, he must have bread. Therefore the Church must destroy a system of society which inevitably creates and perpetuates unequal and unfair conditions of life. These unequal and unfair conditions have been created by competition. Therefore competition must cease and cooperation take its place.”
    I agree with the bishop and Bellamy, the pledge’s author, but I wonder how many pledge pushers would.

  4. Edward Borges-Silva

    If the Bill of Rights was intended to protect us from an over zealous Congress through the offices of the court system, who is to protect us from over zealous courts? Further, bear in mind, if those of us who support the expression ‘under God’ in the pledge are a ‘minority’ (Cite Sources, Please) then under the same Constitution we are entitled to protection too. The fact of the matter is, the hostility towards God and religion is so pronounced by some, the question of rationality doesn’t enter the equation.

    • How are your rights attacked by removing the 1st Amendment unfriendly “Under God”? They aren’t. It never belonged there in the first place.

      What rational and secular basis do we have to keep it in?

  5. No, there cannot be a rational compromise. Many of those opposed to (any) change would not permit a rationale, civil discourse on the top and instead would make a polemical free-for-all with political consequences for any who disagree with them.

  6. Edward Borges-Silva

    Tell you what, Larry. Show me where the phrase ‘separation of Church & State’ appears in the Constitution, better yet identify the actual source of the term and describe in context what the author was talking about.

    • Rational and secular basis for laws comes from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) as one of the factors for determining whether the Establishment Clause has been violated.

      “Separation of Church and State” predates the Constitution by a century. It was the core concept of Roger Williams’s Seekers when Rhode Island was founded and an integral part of the charter for the Pennsylvania colony. Roger Williams coined the phrase long before Jefferson used it when addressing the Danbury Baptists (which is where you were going with this). The Establishment Clause of our 1st Amendment is merely the codification of the concept.

      Do not try to claim that the Separation of Church and State does not exist in the Constitution. You are going to rely on either dishonest historical presentation (ala David Barton), ignore the role of the Supreme Court for the last 2 centuries+, or you are going to play semantical games. The horrifically bad revisionist “scholarship” on such arguments is well known.

      In addition such arguments do not erase more than a century of legal interpretation to such effect either. There is nothing more intellectually dishonest than the “founder intent” argument for Constitutional interpretation.

  7. Edward Borges-Silva

    Personally, I am not all that exercised about this particular issue, along with the ‘Great God Pan’ I suspect most people don’t take it (the Pledge) seriously anyway. What amuses me is that you progressive/atheist types get your knickers in such a twist over two small words. As regards the tyranny of the majority, I find it most intolerant, bigoted, and hateful that so many seek to oppress those of us who choose to express our faith in God in the public square, another 1st Amendment right.

    • What amuses me is that you could not come up with a legitimate secular or rational reason for keeping the words in there.

      You also intentionally confused your 1st Amendment rights here and completely misued the term “tyranny of the majority”.

      Yes, YOU have a right to express your faith in a public square under the free exercise of religion. But THE GOVERNMENT does not have such a right since it amounts to establishment of religion (that other part of the 1st Amendment).

      You admitted that government is only there to serve your religious beliefs, not those of anyone else. The purpose of the “under God” being the advancement of your beliefs in public by the government. Establishment of religion. A no-no. It is this kind of ignorance of the law and our rights which typifies fundamentalist political thinking.

  8. The professing of the Pledge of Allegiance should inspire patriotism in people. The sad part is that Congressional christians, in the 1950’s, succeeded in tying our children’s patriotism to their religious zealotry. The two words in question need to be removed, if the Pledge is compulsory in any public school classroom. Defenders of all things christian think non-believers aren’t being sensitive to their religion. There are other religions in the US. By including those two words, you exclude all other religions.

  9. The problem with the Pledge of Allegiance is not whether or not it contains the word “under God.” With those two words, or without them (or even with the alternative “under law”), it still amazes me that people in the 21st century US actually think it’s the least bit appropriate to make Americans pledge allegiance at all.

    The word “allegiance” comes from the Middle Ages, and it refers to the promises of loyalty, service and payment that people made to their superiors in the feudal order (i.e. their “lieges” … and yes, that’s where the word “allegiance” comes from). It was the saying of such oaths that placed one within politics and society, and defined one’s rights. “Allegiance” was the glue that held the feudal order together, and the “Pledge of Allegiance” is a relic of that.

    But the US is not a feudal state populated by serfs, vassals, lieges, lords, ladies and monarchs. We are, instead, a representative republic, made up of citizens. Moreover, those citizens’ rights are predicated on the federal and state constitutions and the rule of law, not on what sorts of oaths they’ve had to make and to whom they made them. No American owes “allegiance” to anyone or anything … not to a flag, not to the country, not to their leaders. Not to anyone.

    It’s a practice that needs to end already. Can we all finally start acting as though we live in the 21st century rather than the 11th? Sheesh.

    • It comes as no surprise that the lack of historical knowledge and citizenship is present in this current generation. Values of the past are thrown to the wind in place of “tolerance, me first, my rights, etc.” Also, America wasn’t here in the 11th century, so the pledge didn’t originate in that time frame. Do your research before you come off sounding like an idiot!

  10. Maybe to be more honest to our actual culture it should be changed to something like this
    I pledge allegiance to myself
    and whatever I happen to want in this moment
    my life
    I am god of my life
    my freedom
    and justice for me first.

  11. I hear a great effort to sanitize religion and religious people’s constitutional rights from American culture because for some such beliefs and behaviors are considered similar to a viral infection responsible for all the ills of society. So the thesis if I understand it correctly is that if you remove religion (and by extension religious people) from society and everyone becomes a humanistic rationalist the world will suddenly become a better place.

    And people say humanists and atheists don’t have faith.

    • That whole Freedom of Religion thing having you down because you are beginning to realize that it applies to religions besides your own. Removal of the SECTARIAN interests from society makes a more humanistic and free world. If you can’t embrace all religious beliefs, better to avoid it altogether. “Under God” does not embrace all.

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