Learning Under God (November 2002)

On June 25, 2002, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that the “one nation under God” phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance represents an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the government. The sole purpose of the 1954 act that inserted the words, as Judge Goodwin emphasized, was to advance religion. During the Act’s signing ceremony, President Eisenhower stated that the act would lead school children to proclaim “the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty.”

Over the last three decades, the Supreme Court has utilized three tests to analyze alleged violations of the Establishment Clause. The Ninth Circuit held that the 1954 Act failed all three. Under the Lemon test, the Act was shown to possess no secular purpose. The endorsement test revealed that the Act sends the message that nonadherents are “outsiders, not full members of the political community.” The coercion test demonstrated that the Act does, in fact, place students in the dilemma of either participating in an exercise with religious content or protesting.

The last of these tests fleshes out one of the more basic objections to religion in public schools–that religious practices lead to coercion in the public school environment. This effect, as Judge Goodwin said, is “particularly pronounced . . . given the age and impressionability of schoolchildren, and their understanding that they are required to adhere to the norms set by their school, their teacher and their fellow students.” Public school students who are not coerced into conformity frequently face harassment from their peers, who cannot be expected to respect a so-called “voluntary” decision in these matters.

Critics of the Ninth Circuit ruling should remember that public schools teach a captive audience of students. With the limited exception of home and private schooling, attendance is mandatory–enforced by truancy laws. No degree of religious intrusion is appropriate when a student’s presence is in response to threats of government coercion.

In addition, religious practices run contrary to the message that the public school system ought to be sending to America’s students. The word “learning” is not a euphemism for authority-based acceptance of the ideas of teachers, priests, popes, kings or gods. To learn, of course, is to question the very authority that religion deems unquestionable–to apply pure reason to that which is not understood. Individuals who believe in learning want our public schools to teach students how to think, not what to think.

There is a common misconception among proponents of religious practices in public schools. They contend that the requirement of religious neutrality has resulted in an unnecessary degree of government control in the classroom. They fail to realize the tremendous role the government would have to play in monitoring any religious practices that it allowed in public schools. Somehow, the government would have to resolve disputes over conflicting religious doctrines.

I simply cannot conceive of a logical basis for picking one religious practice over another! The sheer impracticality of this task ensures that it will always be in the government’s best interest to hold high the bar of religious neutrality.

Before condemning the Ninth Circuit ruling, critics should objectively apply the Lemon, endorsement, and coercion tests for themselves, and then consider the various arguments in favor of secular public schools. Should they still question the ruling, let it not be out of failure to appreciate the need for religious neutrality.

Freedom From Religion Foundation