Pledging Allegiance to Secularism: David Habecker

Below is a recent statement to the Estes Park (Colo.) Town Board from former Board trustee David Habecker, who was infamously recalled from office several years ago for declining to recite the religious Pledge of Allegiance.

By David Habecker

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I come to you as a resident of Estes Park and someone who loves his country and its Constitution, and who has a strong belief in the separation of church and state. I petition you to redress a grievance: Your practice of starting each meeting with the “official” Pledge of Allegiance is exclusionary, intimidating, promotes religion, and is utterly irrelevant to any town business.

As you are aware, my case against the town over my recall from office was turned down by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals because, since I am no longer a trustee, my argument is moot. However, they did acknowledge that the constitutionality of the pledge has not been resolved. In other words, the court could not resolve the issue, because I am no longer a trustee, having been removed because of my stand on the issue.

You should also know that the lawyers for the U.S. government argued that the phrase “under God” does not mean what it says, but is actually nothing more than a historic reference. It was interesting to see the nation’s top lawyers slap the pious in the face rather than defend their religious claim in a court of law. I suppose that their recalls are imminent. After all, the history of the phrase makes it quite clear that “under God” was added specifically as a religious claim and a political weapon against atheists.

The movement for adding “under God” to the pledge was started by a Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, in 1951, and in 1953 they obtained the support of Democratic Congressman Louis Rabaut of Michigan, who introduced the first “under God” legislation to strike at “the philosophical roots of communism, atheism, and materialism.”

In February 1954, the Rev. George Macpherson Docherty delivered a sermon titled, “Under God,” to a Washington congregation, including Pres. Eisenhower. Docherty insisted that “An atheist American was a contradiction in terms,” and that atheists were “parasites” living off of the nation’s “accumulation of spiritual capital,” whatever that is. Eisenhower reportedly agreed with this sermon, as did many others, and soon there were 18 “under God” resolutions introduced in Congress, resulting in eventual passage of the religious additional to the pledge.

At the signing of the “under God” bill, President Eisenhower stated: “From this day forward, millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim . . . the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty,” and that by adding the words ‘under God,’ Americans were strengthening “those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource.” Adding “under God” was a proclamation against atheism, so isn’t it, by definition, a promotion of religion?

Of course, this all was happening at the time of the Army-McCarthy hearings when atheists were in such fear of their government and fellow citizens that less than 1% of the population would dare admit being non-religious. Instead of protecting atheists from religious persecution; by adding “under God,” the government sanctioned it.

We also need to understand that any Pledge of Allegiance has to be in the present tense as ours originally was: “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.” Present tense! It makes no sense to insert into this pledge a past tense “historic” reference to the assumed religious beliefs of some of our founding fathers. In truth, “under God” was added as a past tense statement to emphasize and officially legitimize the popular notion that we are a religious nation–which, any way you look at it, promotes religion and is therefore unconstitutional.

At the beginning of our secular town board meetings, in this public building, paid for with taxpayer money, including mine, you ask me to publicly and visibly agree or disagree with your religious claims, which are self-servingly wrapped in the flag.

Not wanting to insult the flag by promoting an unconstitutional act or to violate my own principles, I remain seated during its recital. When a color guard is brought in, I stand respectfully for the flag until you begin your religious test. The fact that some citizens are excluded is not accidental but deliberate and you are accessories.

I am an atheist, which is nothing more than a conclusion one reaches as to the existence of a god. I am not alone. The latest polls put the number of admitted atheists, agnostics, and those with no faith at around 15% of the U.S. population. This number is greater than Mormons, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims combined. I would argue that the number is actually much higher, based on observed human behavior and a human propensity to hedge one’s bet or avoid ostracism.

I am an atheist, and I live in well-founded fear as do all atheists who know their history. I live in well-founded fear of economic retaliation. I live in well-founded fear of political and social discrimination. I live in well-founded fear of physical reprisals, and in times of social unrest I will fear for my life and that of my family.

But why or how would you know or care about my lack of religious belief? Is it possible the pledge had anything to do with it? Could it be that the pledge performed as expected and that’s why the target is on my back?

My request is that the town board discuss and vote on the practice of reciting the pledge. If you decide to vote against its recital, I will thank you and we can all get back to normal. Otherwise, you will be demonstrating that you do not respect the rights of a large minority of your fellow citizens, that you are willing to exclude us from full participation in our town’s meetings, and that you see us as second-class citizens of these United States. Maybe it will also show that you agree with another member of our community who told me I could move to another country if I didn’t like the way we do things here.

In closing, imagine this hypothetical situation: If nonbelievers become the majority and change the words from “under God” to “without God,” would Christians stand for the pledge and just not say the words, would they remain seated, or would they protest violently? What would be their argument? “Without God” would be historically correct because our Constitution does not contain the word God. Besides, God has “no religious meaning and it’s only part of a patriotic exercise”! For the record, I wouldn’t stand for that pledge either, and for the same reasons.

David Habecker served for more than 12 years as a member of the Board of Trustees of Estes Park, Colo., until being recalled for not reciting the religious Pledge of Allegiance. He and the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued, but the case was thrown out on standing.

Habecker graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology and has lived in Estes Park since the 1970s. He designs residential buildings and runs a small hotel with his wife, Susan. They have two grown children. He is a member of the Foundation. He was named a “Freethought Hero” by the Foundation in 2005.

Freedom From Religion Foundation