Pledge Swears Allegiance to Monotheism (August 2002)



MICHAEL A. NEWDOW, Plaintiff-Appellant, 

Filed June 26, 2002 
Opinion by Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, joined by Stephen Reinhardt, Circuit Judge


GOODWIN, Circuit Judge:

Michael Newdow appeals a judgment dismissing his challenge to the constitutionality of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Newdow argues that the addition of these words by a 1954 federal statute to the previous version of the Pledge of Allegiance (which made no reference to God) and the daily recitation in the classroom of the Pledge of Allegiance, with the added words included, by his daughter’s public school teacher are violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.


Newdow is an atheist whose daughter attends public elementary school in the Elk Grove Unified School District (“EGUSD”) in California. In accordance with state law and a school district rule, EGUSD teachers begin each school day by leading their students in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (“the Pledge”). The California Education Code requires that public schools begin each school day with “appropriate patriotic exercises” and that “[t]he giving of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America shall satisfy” this requirement. Cal. Educ. Code # 52720 (1989) (hereinafter “California statute”). To implement the California statute, the school district that Newdow’s daughter attends has promulgated a policy that states, in pertinent part: “Each elementary school class [shall] recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag once each day.”

The classmates of Newdow’s daughter in the EGUSD are led by their teacher in reciting the Pledge codified in federal law. On June 22, 1942, Congress first codified the Pledge as “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Pub. L. No. 623, Ch. 435, # 7, 56 Stat. 380 (1942) (codified at 36 U.S.C. # 1972). On June 14, 1954, Congress amended Section 1972 to add the words “under God” after the word “Nation.” Pub. L. No. 396, Ch. 297, 68 Stat. 249 (1954) (“1954 Act”). The Pledge is currently codified as “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 4 U.S.C. # 4 (1998) (Title 36 was revised and recodified by Pub. L. No. 105-225, # 2(a), 112 Stat. 1494 (1998). Section 172 was abolished, and the Pledge is now found in Title 4.)

Newdow does not allege that his daughter’s teacher or school district requires his daughter to participate in reciting the Pledge. Rather, he claims that his daughter is injured when she is compelled to “watch and listen as her state-employed teacher in her state-run school leads her classmates in a ritual proclaiming that there is a God, and that our’s [sic] is ‘one nation under God.’ “

Newdow’s complaint in the district court challenged the constitutionality, under the First Amendment, of the 1954 Act, the California statute, and the school district’s policy requiring teachers to lead willing students in recitation of the Pledge. He sought declaratory and injunctive relief, but did not seek damages.

The school districts and their superintendents (collectively, “school district defendants”) filed a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Magistrate Judge Peter A. Nowinski held a hearing at which the school district defendants requested that the court rule only on the constitutionality of the Pledge, and defer any ruling on sovereign immunity. The United States Congress, the United States, and the President of the United States (collectively, “the federal defendants”) joined in the motion to dismiss filed by the school district defendants. The magistrate judge reported findings and a recommendation; District Judge Edward J. Schwartz approved the recommendation and entered a judgment of dismissal. This appeal followed. . . .


. . . . [4] In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation “under God” is an endorsement of religion. It is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation “under God” is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase “one nation under God” in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and–since 1954–monotheism. The text of the official Pledge, codified in federal law, impermissibly takes a position with respect to the purely religious question of the existence and identity of God. A profession that we are a nation “under God” is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation “under Jesus,” a nation “under Vishnu,” a nation “under Zeus,” or a nation “under no god,” because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion. “[T]he government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion.” Wallace, 472 U.S. at 60. Furthermore, the school district’s practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge aims to inculcate in students a respect for the ideals set forth in the Pledge, and thus amounts to state endorsement of these ideals. Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the Pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the Pledge.
The Supreme Court recognized the normative and ideological nature of the Pledge in Barnette, 319 U.S. 624. There, the Court held unconstitutional a school district’s wartime policy of punishing students who refused to recite the Pledge and salute the flag. Id. at 642. The Court noted that the school district was compelling the students “to declare a belief,” id. at 631, and “requir[ing] the individual to communicate by word and sign his acceptance of the political ideas [the flag] . . . bespeaks,” id. at 633. “[T]he compulsory flag salute and pledge requires affirmation of a belief and an attitude of mind.” Id. The Court emphasized that the political concepts articulated in the Pledge [Barnette was decided before “under God” was added, and thus the Court’s discussion was limited to the political ideals contained in the Pledge] were idealistic, not descriptive: ” ‘[L]iberty and justice for all,’ if it must be accepted as descriptive of the present order rather than an ideal, might to some seem an overstatement.” Id. at 634 n.14. The Court concluded that: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Id. at 642.

[5] The Pledge, as currently codified, is an impermissible government endorsement of religion because it sends a message to unbelievers “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” Lynch, 465 U.S. at 688 (O’Connor, J., concurring). Justice Kennedy, in his dissent in Allegheny, agreed:

[B]y statute, the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag describes the United States as ‘one nation under God.’ To be sure, no one is obligated to recite this phrase, . . . but it borders on sophistry to suggest that the reasonable atheist would not feel less than a full member of the political community every time his fellow Americans recited, as part of their expression of patriotism and love for country, a phrase he believed to be false.

Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 672 (Kennedy, J., dissenting). Consequently, the policy and the Act fail the endorsement test.

[6] Similarly, the policy and the Act fail the coercion test. Just as in Lee, the policy and the Act place students in the untenable position of choosing between participating in an exercise with religious content or protesting. As the Court observed with respect to the graduation prayer in that case: “What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy.” Lee, 505 U.S. at 592. Although the defendants argue that the religious content of “one nation under God” is minimal, to an atheist or a believer in certain non-Judeo-Christian religions or philosophies, it may reasonably appear to be an attempt to enforce a “religious orthodoxy” of monotheism, and is therefore impermissible. The coercive effect of this policy is particularly pronounced in the school setting 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. Furthermore, under Lee, the fact that students are not required to participate is no basis for distinguishing Barnette from the case at bar because, even without a recitation requirement for each child, the mere fact that a pupil is required to listen every day to the statement “one nation under God” has a coercive effect. The coercive effect of the Act is apparent from its context and legislative history, which indicate that the Act was designed to result in the daily recitation of the words “under God” in school classrooms. President Eisenhower, during the Act’s signing ceremony, stated: “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty.” 100 Cong. Rec. 8618 (1954) (statement of Sen. Ferguson incorporating signing statement of President Eisenhower). Therefore, the policy and the Act fail the coercion test.

Finally we turn to the Lemon test, the first prong of which asks if the challenged policy has a secular purpose. Historically, the primary purpose of the 1954 Act was to advance religion, in conflict with the first prong of the Lemon test. The federal defendants “do not dispute that the words ‘under God’ were intended” “to recognize a Supreme Being,” at a time when the government was publicly inveighing against atheistic communism. Nonetheless, the federal defendants argue that the Pledge must be considered as a whole when assessing whether it has a secular purpose. They claim that the Pledge has the secular purpose of “solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.” Lynch, 465 U.S. at 693.

The flaw in defendants’ argument is that it looks at the text of the Pledge “as a whole,” and glosses over the 1954 Act. The problem with this approach is apparent when one considers the Court’s analysis in Wallace. There, the Court struck down Alabama’s statute mandating a moment of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer” not because the final version “as a whole” lacked a primary secular purpose, but because the state legislature had amended the statute specifically and solely to add the words “or voluntary prayer.” 472 U.S. at 59-60.

[7] By analogy to Wallace, we apply the purpose prong of the Lemon test to the amendment that added the words “under God” to the Pledge, not to the Pledge in its final version. As was the case with the amendment to the Alabama statute in Wallace, the legislative history of the 1954 Act reveals that the Act’s sole purpose was to advance religion, in order to differentiate the United States from nations under communist rule. “[T]he First Amendment requires that a statute must be invalidated if it is entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion.” Id. at 56 (citations omitted) (applying the Lemon test). As the legislative history of the 1954 Act sets forth:

At this moment of our history the principles underlying our American Government and the American way of life are under attack by a system whose philosophy is at direct odds with our own. Our American Government is founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being. Underlying this concept is the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp. The inclusion of God in our pledge therefore would further acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon the moral directions of the Creator. At the same time it would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism with its attendant subservience of the individual.

H.R. Rep. No. 83-1693, at 1-2 (1954), reprinted in 1954 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2339, 2340. This language reveals that the purpose of the 1954 Act was to take a position on the question of theism, namely, to support the existence and moral authority of God, while “deny[ing] . . . atheistic and materialistic concepts.” Id. Such a purpose runs counter to the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government’s endorsement or advancement not only of one particular religion at the expense of other religions, but also of religion at the expense of atheism.

[T]he Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all. This conclusion derives support not only from the interest in respecting the individual’s freedom of conscience, but also from the conviction that religious beliefs worthy of respect are the product of a free and voluntary choice by the faithful, and from recognition of the fact that the political interest in forestalling intolerance extends beyond intolerance among Christian sects–or even intolerance among “religions”–to encompass intolerance of the disbeliever and the uncertain.

Wallace, 472 U.S. at 52-54.

[8] In language that attempts to prevent future constitutional challenges, the sponsors of the 1954 Act expressly disclaimed a religious purpose. “This is not an act establishing a religion . . . . A distinction must be made between the existence of a religion as an institution and a belief in the sovereignty of God. The phrase ‘under God’ recognizes only the guidance of God in our national affairs.” H.R. Rep. No. 83-1693, at 3 (1954), reprinted in 1954 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2339, 2341-42. This alleged distinction is irrelevant for constitutional purposes. The Act’s affirmation of “a belief in the sovereignty of God” and its recognition of “the guidance of God” are endorsements by the government of religious beliefs. The Establishment Clause is not limited to “religion as an institution”; this is clear from cases such as Santa Fe, where the Court struck down student-initiated and student-led prayer at high school football games. 530 U.S. 310-16. The Establishment Clause guards not only against the establishment of “religion as an institution,” but also against the endorsement of religious ideology by the government. Because the Act fails the purpose prong of Lemon, we need not examine the other prongs. Lemon, 403 U.S. at 612-14.

[9] Similarly, the school district policy also fails the Lemon test. Although it survives the first prong of Lemon because, as even Newdow concedes, the school district had the secular purpose of fostering patriotism in enacting the policy, the policy fails the second prong. As explained by this court in Kreisner v. City of San Diego, 1 F. 3d 775, 782 (9th Cir. 1993), and by the Supreme Court in School District of Grand Rapids v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373, 390 (1985), the second Lemon prong asks whether the challenged government action is sufficiently likely to be perceived by adherents of the controlling denominations as an endorsement, and by the nonadherents as a disapproval, of their individual religious choices.” Ball, 473 U.S. at 390. Given the age and impressionability of schoolchildren, as discussed above, particularly within the confined environment of the classroom, the policy is highly likely to convey an impermissible message of endorsement to some and disapproval to others of their beliefs regarding the existence of a monotheistic God. Therefore the policy fails the effects prong of Lemon, and fails the Lemon test. In sum, both the policy and the Act fail the Lemon test as well as the endorsement and coercion tests.

[10] In conclusion, we hold that (1) the 1954 Act adding the words “under God” to the Pledge, and (2) EGUSD’s policy and practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge, with the added words included, violate the Establishment Clause. The judgment of dismissal is vacated with respect to these two claims, and the cause is remanded for further proceedings consistent with our holding. Plaintiff is to recover costs on this appeal.


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