PolySciFi Blog

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Newdow and the Pledge

Jody's knocking over a straw man below, and there's enough wrong with his reasoning that I think it merits a post instead of a comment. Some obvious points:

  1. The Pledge of Allegiance, unlike biology, health, history, and physics (the other subjects he mentions) is a statement of belief, something that students are asked to swear to, hand on heart. Newdow makes this point again and again and again in his oral argument. I have no problem with such a pledge (in fact, I believe that the public schools should do more to teach citizenship and, pace Richard, national culture). However, Congress is specificially denied the right to make the statement that the United States is a nation under God. (And Congress sets the words of the Pledge). When you ask students to swear to the truth of something, to stand up and recite an oath daily, that's very different than asking them questions about evolution on a biology test. There is a distinction between reciting an oath (or, as President Bush calls it, a prayer) and studying a subject.
  2. The controversial parts of the school curriculum are the result of century-long struggles and debates. Quantum mechanics wasn't in physics textbooks until the idea had been debated, tested, shown to be useful in predicting real-world results, and so on; the same is true of evolution and health. (History is obviously a bit of a different case, but I think I can make an argument along similar lines about it if necessary). These theories were put into textbooks when, and only when, a significant majority of experts in each field came to believe they described objective truth. The words "under God" were inserted into the Pledge by Congressional fiat in 1954. Describing our nation as "under God" is, on its face, a statement about religious faith; it is not a scientific theory with real world applications that ends up having disastrous implications for a set of religious beliefs. I'd also note that no first-grader gets taught evolution or quantum mechanics; by the time children encounter these ideas they are much less vulnerable to coersion.

Anyway, I think Jody's summary of Newdow's argument is incorrect, and I'd offer the following in its place:

  1. Even when participation is voluntary, asking a child to stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance is coercive.
  2. Every indication that we have, from Congress's own statements in 1954 on up to President Bush's description, and any commonsense reading of the Pledge of Allegiance will note that it contains an affirmation of religious faith.
  3. Government may not ask children to make statements of religious faith. And before this turns into an argument about whether the Establishment Clause is binding on anyone other than Congress, note that the words "under God" were inserted into the Pledge by Congress.

That seems pretty cut and dry to me. I like the outcome, but I would hope that even people who don't like the outcome would concede that sometimes the Constitution requires outcomes you disagree with (I feel that way about the second amendment, incidentally).


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