Just Say No to God

When I was in seventh grade, I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I wasn't old enough to vote, but I knew enough to decide that I didn't want to offer a daily, verbal affirmation of loyalty to the United States and some sort of ill-defined Judeo-Christian deity. So when it came time to say the pledge during homeroom, I would stand up with the rest of the kids, but I wouldn't put my hand over my heart, and I wouldn't speak. I would just stand there and think about kissing this cute boy named Chris who sat in the back of the class.

At some point, my homeroom teacher realized I wasn't saying anything during the pledge. When the other students had completed their recitation and we'd all sat down, she asked me tartly whether I actually knew the pledge. As my classmates watched with a combination of boredom and hostility, I explained that I did know it but chose not to say it. Then she forced me to stand up in front of the class and recite it to prove I wasn't a liar as well as an ungrateful, spoiled anti-American.

After my parents called the school and threatened legal action, I was assigned a new homeroom teacher who didn't care what we did during the pledge. But for every lucky kid like me whose liberal parents cared enough to fight for my rights, there are thousands more who are humiliated on a daily basis for quietly expressing their beliefs.

Worse, they're being forced to engage in an explicitly religious ritual in which they invoke God.

People who learned about the United States from sources other than the pledge know that the Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Congress's 1954 addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance would therefore seem to be unconstitutional. But as last week's Supreme Court ruling makes clear, things are never what they seem.

Michael Newdow, a California atheist, challenged the constitutionality of the pledge on behalf of his daughter, whose school forced her to say it. A California court found in Newdow's favor, and the case was appealed up to the Supreme Court. But the justices, in their infinite waffling, ruled that Newdow didn't have proper standing to bring the case to court because he doesn't have full custody of his daughter.

As Newdow put it in countless interviews, the court punted. It dismissed a serious constitutional argument on a technicality. I guess the justices decided that if we were going to have legal sodomy in this country, we'd damn well better say God's name every day in school. And this isn't just any old God, OK? It's a right-wing Christian God. The Knights of Columbus, a conservative, men-only Catholic group, was responsible for lobbying to get "under God" added to the pledge in 1954. I don't think the Knights were having nice, liberal-pluralist thoughts about "your own special God" when they did that.

Francis Bellamy, a socialist and magazine editor, wrote the pledge in 1892 as part of a nationwide, school celebration of Columbus Day. His original pledge - which made no mention of God - included the phrase "one nation, indivisible, with equality, liberty, and justice for all." But several state school superintendents objected to the word "equality" because they were against equality for women and blacks. Bellamy was forced to take it out.

The history of the pledge is one of creeping conservatism. The first edit to it preserved racism and sexism, while the second major edit in 1954 abolished the distinction between church and state. Now the Supreme Court has upheld that great tradition.

In the process it has also upheld the sexist underpinnings of both edits to the pledge. Indeed, the court's claim that Newdow somehow does not have the right to speak for his daughter in court is profoundly retrograde. Why should Newdow, as a father, have less responsibility for rearing his daughter than her mother does? Do men have no role to play in nourishing their daughters' ethics?

I'm sure that's what the all-male members of the Knights of Columbus would say. Child rearing is a woman's job, after all. Especially in our great nation, ruled by a man and his God.

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