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U.S.: Renewed Controversy Around Separation Of Church And State

  • Andrew Tully

One of the principles upon which America was founded was religious freedom. Under the U.S. Constitution, that includes a ban on a state religion, which the nation's founders believed could become oppressive. For years, civil liberties advocates have fought every government action that they said could be a dangerous step toward blurring the line between religion and the state. Many Americans believe this effort has gone too far now that a U.S. court has found grievous fault with the Pledge of Allegiance -- a traditional schoolroom ritual in the country.

Washington, 28 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Americans are engaged in a spirited debate about the nature of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of the separation of religion and government.

On 26 June, a federal appeals court ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance -- which millions of American schoolchildren recite each morning -- is unconstitutional because it endorses religion by including the phrase "one nation under God."

The ruling, however, appeared to became meaningless late on 27 June after one of the judges who wrote the 2-1 opinion put a hold on his vote. He gave no reason. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department said it wants the court to rehear the case.

On 27 June, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of using government money to fund vouchers that would help poor parents pay private-school tuition for their children if they are not satisfied with the performance of the local public schools.

Supporters of the school vouchers say poor parents should have the same opportunity as those who are more financially comfortable to send their children to the schools of their choice. Opponents contend that parents receiving tuition vouchers often will send their children to religious schools. They say it would be unconstitutional for government money to go to these schools.

The focus of both cases is a passage in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment saying, "Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion." Constitutional scholars agree that this language is meant to prevent the religious intolerance that many Europeans sought to flee when they came to America. But for years there has been debate about how the U.S. government may address religion.

Most of the current debate is focused on the 26 June ruling by the federal appeals court in San Francisco against the Pledge of Allegiance.

The court ruled in a lawsuit filed by a California atheist who objected to his daughter's being compelled to listen to her second-grade classmates recite the pledge. California law -- and that of many other states -- requires all publicly funded schools to begin the day with the recitation.

Supporters of the suit acknowledge that the girl is free not to join in the daily exercise, but they say that could unfairly lead to her social ostracism by students who take part.

The three-judge court, by a 2-1 vote, ruled that the state's use of the phrase "under God" is as objectionable as the use of the phrase "under Jesus" or "under Vishnu" or "under Zeus" -- or even "under no god" -- because none of the phrases is neutral with respect to religion.

Reaction to the decision was fast and furious, and was nearly one-sided. U.S. President George W. Bush, members of Congress, and ordinary citizens interviewed by news organizations nationwide called the ruling a travesty.

On 27 June, the Senate chamber was uncharacteristically full when the day's business began. The reason: Every member -- excepting one senator who was ill -- wanted to join in the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. They intoned, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands..." There was a brief pause, then the senators resumed: "...One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

The night before -- in fact, just hours after the appeals court ruling -- the Senate passed a resolution denouncing the court's decision.

Bush criticized the ruling during a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kananaskis, Canada, during the summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations. "America is a nation that values our relationship with the Almighty. Declaration of God in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't violate rights. As a matter of fact, it's a confirmation of the fact that we received our rights from God, as proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence."

The declaration, written in 1776, is not a legally binding document, as the U.S. Constitution is. But it is an articulate expression of the political philosophy of the American colonists who believed they deserved to govern themselves. The document says all people derive their civil rights from "their creator."

The idea of religious freedom is at the very heart of the American experience. Many European colonists crossed the Atlantic solely to escape religious tyranny. That is why the Constitution forbids establishing a state religion and guarantees religious diversity.

But the question remains whether merely requiring the recitation of the pledge -- including the mention of God -- in a state-sponsored setting actually promotes religion, much less whether it is a dangerous step toward the establishment of a state religion.

Robert Levy says it is not. Levy is a constitutional scholar at the Cato Institute, an independent policy research center in Washington. He told RFE/RL that invoking the name of God under such circumstances is no more than an innocent reflection of Western culture. "What we know is that the framers [of the Constitution] surely didn't intend to expunge all references to religion from public discourse."

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by a Baptist minister who, despite his religious training, chose not to include the mention of God. That was inserted by an act of Congress in 1954 and signed by President Dwight Eisenhower.

Levy says it is in no way coincidental that God was inserted into the pledge during the first decade of the Cold War."Legislative history suggests that the act's sole purpose was to advance religion in order to differentiate the United States from nations under communist rule."

Still, Levy says, this motive in no way makes the pledge unconstitutional. Like most other observers, Levy says he believes the ruling will be overturned when it reaches the Supreme Court eventually.

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