Is the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance a religious or political statement? Does reciting it constitute a prayer or some kind of forced devotion, or does it merely acknowledge a national philosophy and tradition that seeks a balance between faith and secularism?
This was part of the question the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to consider as it heard arguments challenging the constitutionality of a New Hampshire statute that requires school districts to provide time for public elementary students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The appeal stemmed from a 2009 dismissal of a case filed by the group Freedom From Religion on behalf of a group of parents and students challenging the practice in two separate New Hampshire school districts.
The group challenged the statute on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment establishment clause. The group challenged the basic premise that the phrase does not advance a religious agenda and instead reflects a nod to the political philosophy that Americans have inalienable rights and argued that patriotism and religious ideology had merged in a constitutionally impermissible fashion.
In defending the suit the district relied heavily on the fact that the law provided for voluntary recitation of the pledge and that in practice, how the pledge is recited is up to the principle of each school.
If students do not want to participate in the recitation they have the option to sit or stand quietly while the others finish.
This is not the only case challenging the Pledge of Allegiance. Currently the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has a petition for review of an earlier ruling that the pledge did not violate the establishment clause.
Should the 1st Circuit rule that there is in fact an establishment clause violation in this case it sets the stage for intervention by the Supreme Court to resolve the split between the federal appellate circuits, giving the Roberts Court the final say on the matter. Given the current makeup of the Court I’m not so sure this is the strategy those challenging the pledge want to take.
photo courtesy of stevendepolo via Flickr