F or many who believe in God, no matter which religion or sect they adhere to, it’s difficult to argue with the sentiments expressed last month by Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. He said, “We should not and cannot rewrite history to ignore our spiritual heritage. It surrounds us. It cries out for our country to honor God.”
Stirring words, indeed. Too bad they were spoken in defense of bad legislation.
Wamp’s comments came during House debate on a bill, H.R. 2389, that limits the power of federal judges to rule on Pledge of Allegiance cases. The bill was born out of the well-known 2002 case in which California father and atheist Michael Newdow sued to prevent public schools from forcing children to recite the pledge because he said the words “under God” constitute an unconstitutional establishment of religion forbidden by the First Amendment.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Newdow and the case was eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices there ruled that as a noncustodial parent, Newdow had no standing to bring the suit and overturned the 9th Circuit Court. This new bill is an attempt to head off any future lawsuits along those lines.
There are so many things wrong with this idea that it’s difficult to know where to start. There are serious separation-of-powers issues in this bill.
According to The Associated Press, the bill “… would deny jurisdiction to federal courts, and appellate jurisdiction to the Supreme Court, to decide questions pertaining to the interpretation or constitutionality of the pledge. State courts could still decide whether the pledge is valid within the state. … ”
Constitutional scholars are not in agreement whether the bill will pass muster, so it’s likely to have a difficult future should it make it into law. Would such a law prevent federal courts from considering the constitutionality of the law itself? That probably depends on the wording of the bill in its final form, but it could get interesting.
Every time the subject of the pledge in public schools comes up, there is heated debate over those two words added in 1954 in a Cold War reaction to atheistic communism. On the side of the pledge are hardliners who seem to believe that changing the words would be the first step toward the destruction of the nation; on the other side are those, like Newdow, who see every mention of a deity in public discourse as the establishment of an American Christian theocracy.
Then there are folks like us, who would prefer to settle the problem by dropping any requirement that forces schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Our opposition isn’t based on religious beliefs or lack of them, we just don’t see a pledge requirement as having a place in schools.
Ideally, of course, parents would send their children to schools that mirror their beliefs so this wouldn’t be an issue, but that’s an argument for another day. Barring that, we think forcing children to recite words that mean nothing to them is a waste of classroom time.
The argument that reciting the pledge instills patriotism in children doesn’t fly. Ask any 10 third-graders what the words mean and you’re likely to get several different answers, the usual one being, “I don’t know.”
There are better ways of getting our youngsters to believe in the founding principles of our nation, first and foremost by teaching them about the benefits and responsibilities of freedom. Once they understand those basic tenets of America, they’ll have a better grasp of how they should act in a free society. They’ll know that their actions have consequences and that rights do not stand alone, they have responsibilities that accompany them. And that sort of patriotic instruction won’t even come close to treading on any First Amendment issues.