More dancing in the dark
The Supreme Court's evasive nonruling on whether the phrase "under God" belongs in the Pledge of Allegiance is not playing well across the country. The most common complaint seems to be that the court "punted," a polite way of saying that the justices did not want to do their job by ruling on the substance of the issue. Call me a cynic, but I think the liberals on the court didn't want to cause an uproar that would help Republicans in an election year. Better to come up with a soothing but temporary political decision--restoring "under God" for now while clearly inviting a future challenge that the court will be only too happy to grant once the political coast is clear. We deserve a better, more honest Supreme Court.
Like many lawyers, Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School was not impressed by the fig leaf chosen by the court: that the California atheist who brought the challenge was not the custodial parent of the child reciting the pledge and therefore lacked standing to bring suit. The court misunderstood legal developments in California, Turley said, where the state Supreme Court does not grant absolute control of a child to the custodial parent. Even noncustodial atheists have a stake in the way their children are raised. More important, Turley caught the mood of cynicism about this decision by writing, in Newsday, that the court was dancing an eyes-closed shuffle to avoid a ruling. "At the head of this constitutional conga line," Turley wrote, "was an 84-year-old justice, John Paul Stevens, who showed that an octogenarian can still dance wildly in a crowded legal room without touching a single substantive issue."
"The last breath." The truth is that the fate of the phrase "under God" is a symbolic issue. The real issue is the continuing and relentless effort to banish every trace of religion from the public square. "Under God" is in line with "In God We Trust" on our currency and "God save the United States and this honorable court" at the Supreme Court and a similar blessing in the president's annual Thanksgiving message. To defenders of the "under God" phrase, this is the key point: that the reflexive hostility to religion that now guides much of American liberalism will result in the step-by-step elimination of all these references, most of which, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and others have argued, are harmless expressions of "ceremonial deism."
The antireligious campaign presents itself, of course, as a high-minded concern about church-state separation. But that self-flattering view breaks down quickly under the most casual analysis. The American Civil Liberties Union hilariously argued that a moment of silence in Virginia schools equals "establishment of religion." Recently, under threat of expensive litigation, the ACLU forced the removal of a tiny cross on a tiny building on the seal of Los Angeles County. The cross was included in a welter of symbols and referred to the Spanish missions that founded modern California. Even a semirational analysis might have concluded that this was a straightforward, unthreatening historical reference. But it was enough to send the ACLU into a spasm of church-state concern.