Since part of Universal Life Church Monastery’s doctrine is freedom of and from religion, and since issues surrounding religious freedom are a direct concern of the church, it seems only appropriate to cover the recent ruling by a U.S. federal appeals court endorsing the use of God on money and in the Pledge of Allegiance recited in many schools. Putting law and constitutionality aside for the time being (for this debate is outside the scope of this article), the chief question becomes how the court justified its decision, and whether this decision was founded on sound reason. The court’s explanation ultimately remains questionable.
Last Thursday, 11 March, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold references to the monotheistic Judeo-Christian deity, God, in the public school Pledge of Allegiance, and, in a separate ruling, the court ruled 3-0 to uphold the reference to this deity on future minted currency. The rulings are a reversal of a 2002 decision in which the same court decided in favor of Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow, ruling that the Pledge violated the First Amendment by serving to blur the boundary between church and state. In response to that ruling, national furor arose, largely among Christian pastors and ministers, who accused the judges of judicial “activism”. According to Terrence Chea of the Associated Press, the backlash against the ruling backing increased secularization was so heated that “President George W. Bush called the . . . decision ‘ridiculous,’ senators passed a resolution condemning the ruling and Newdow received death threats”.
Is such a backlash fair and rational, or should it set off alarms? What excuses did the court provide?
The decision’s reversal was explained in writing for the majority by Judge Carlos Bea. In defense of the court’s decision supporting the Pledge in schools, he argued, “The Pledge of Allegiance serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded”. Certainly a heartwarming piece of rhetoric, but, ironically, such support for the Pledge may in fact constitute the opposite of what American principles stand for. In addition, Bea pointed out that students were free to opt out of the Pledge. In defense of the court’s decision supporting the invocation of the Judeo-Christian deity on U.S. currency, he maintained that it “has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion.” But exactly how were the ruling judges able to convince themselves that a government minting coins and bills reading “in God we trust”—whereby the state plainly speaks on behalf of every citizen—does not reflect government establishment of religion any less than, say, the state performing a baptism for every newborn?
For secularists, each of Judge Brea’s arguments is rife with problems. Let us take a look at both.
In the first case, he argues that reciting the Pledge unites Americans and nurtures a loyalty to traditional American ideals and principles. We know that the line “under God” was inserted into the Pledge by members of Congress in a 1954 federal law that sought to distinguish Americans from “godless Communists”, and hence it was a government endorsement of religion (perhaps even an irrational display of jingoism). And yet the First Amendment bans the establishment of religion in order to reflect a core American principle upholding separation of church and state. So, if the recitation of the Pledge is intended to nurture traditional American values, it cannot contain the line “under God”, for this conflicts with the American principle of religious neutrality in government. In the meantime, all of the other great ideals the Pledge symbolizes would remain intact.
In the second case, Bea posits that allowing the line “in God we trust” to be printed and inscribed on U.S. currency does not violate the First Amendment, since it has nothing to do with religion. But this claim seems counter-intuitive, and, indeed, upon further scrutiny, patently self-delusional. The court will be hard-pressed to explain how a government issuing currency which includes such a line does not reflect an adopted theology on the part of the government and therefore violate the First Amendment. Stripped down to its most straightforward elements, the argument, in effect, states circularly that a government endorsing religion does not equate with a government endorsing religion.
We might say that there are more pressing matters at hand than a “petty” debate about the mention of God on money or in a public school pledge, but if we consider the potential course that the upsurge in religious fundamentalist backlashes could take, it becomes a slippery slope from a secular democracy to a theocracy. At Universal Life Church Monastery, where we believe everyone should be free to practice any religion, or no religion at all, we look at these events with a cautious eye and hope that the court’s decision does not help thwart America’s struggle to prise itself out of the increasingly tight grip of religious reactionaries.