Overview On Pledge Of Allegiance Ruling
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ATTACKS ON PLEDGE RULING BOLSTER ITS LOGIC
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Friday, June 28, 2002
In the immediate aftermath of an appeals court ruling that the Pledge of
Allegiance was unconstitutional, nearly all the commentary in the
country's leading newspapers criticized the decision. But some of the
more alarmist arguments used to defend the phrase "under God" actually
tended to support the judges' finding that including it in the Pledge is
an impermissible government establishment of religion.
Of the 10 largest-circulation dailies in the country, six had run
editorials on the ruling as of June 28; all six attacked the decision.
Editorialists called it "a fundamentally silly ruling" (L.A. Times
(6/27/02) or an "addled opinion" (Wall Street Journal, 6/27/02). The New
York Times (6/27/02) said it "lacks common sense," while the Washington
Post (6/27/02) compared it to a "parody." The appeals court "went way
overboard," in the opinion of Long Island Newsday; for the New York Daily
News (6/27/02), "the sooner this decision is overturned, the better."
Signed columns in the top papers had little more balance. Jeffrey Rosen
in the New York Times (6/28/02) criticized the ruling's "polarizing
vision." In the Washington Post (6/27/02), Marc Fisher criticized "a
court steeped in the arrogance of political correctness."
A column by the Chicago Tribune's John Kass (6/27/02) ran under the
headline, "Ruling on Pledge Is a Slap in Face to All Americans." Marc
Howard Wilson (Chicago Tribune, 6/28/02) called it "typical San Francisco
lunacy" and "misguided grandstanding."
In a twist, the L.A. Times (6/28/02) ran a feature by staff writer Martin
Miller, who described himself as an atheist but attacked the non-believer
whose lawsuit prompted the decision as "sullen, cantankerous and
litigious...intolerant, pushy and self-righteous."
Compared to these harsh attacks on the ruling, supporters were muted. The
Washington Post's E.J. Dionne (6/28/02) mustered half a cheer for the
decision in an op-ed headlined "Wrong for the Right Reasons." The Chicago
Tribune's Eric Zorn (6/27/02) noted that he had criticized mandatory
recitations of the Pledge in the past, and invited readers to view those
columns on his website.
Susan Jacoby in Newsday (6/28/02) narrowly endorsed the opinion as
"entirely correct in constitutional terms," although she wished that the
Pledge were "a more substantive issue." Libertarian conservative James
Pinkerton (L.A. Times, 6/28/02) produced the most robust defense of the
appeals court justices, praising their "historical wisdom" (although
calling their ruling "poorly thought out").
Though support for the court ruling was limited in the leading U.S.
papers, the criticisms of the decision in some ways backed up the court's
reasoning. Several critics adopted the position of the appeals court's
dissenter, saying that "under God" is not an establishment of religion
because it is a "rote civic exercise" (New York Times, 6/27/02), a
"harmless civic recitation" (Newsday, 6/28/02) with "such a minimal
religious effect" (New York Times, 6/28/02). "God's name is just a frill,
a space-filler in the unthinking torrent of much daily conversation,"
claimed Fisher in the Washington Post (6/27/02).
But at the same time, many opponents of the decision warned that it could
provoke a powerful, emotional response from believers. The New York Times
(6/27/02) warned that it was "inviting a political backlash," whose
effects Rosen spelled out in the paper the next day: "That ruling will
almost certainly galvanize Republicans to push for the appointment of
conservative judges who will seek to place religion in the center of
public life." The Washington Post (6/27/02) noted that the ruling " can
only serve to generate unnecessary political battles and create a
fundraising bonanza for the many groups who will rush to its defense."
Those are fairly serious consequences for the cessation of a "rote civic
exercise." Indeed, the vitriolic attacks against the decision, and the
warnings of what Christians and other monotheists might do if the Pledge
were not maintained as is, bolstered the appeals court's finding that
including "under God" was "not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans
believe in a deity" or "merely descriptive of the undeniable historical
significance of religion in the founding of the republic," but rather "an
impermissible government endorsement of religion" that "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.'"
Granted, some of the defenders stood up for the Pledge because of, rather
than despite, its religious content. "The sentiment that this is a land
blessed has been accepted since Pilgrim days," asserted the Daily News
(6/27/02). The Tribune's Kass (6/27/02) wondered whether his children
will be "jailed for having any dangerous and heretical beliefs, like a
belief in God."
The most disingenuous assertions in support of the Pledge status quo
related to the purpose of adding "under God"-- an important constitutional
question, since church/state separation questions typically hinge on the
secular intent of governmental action.
"The pledge, taken as a whole, was not intended to be a coercive prayer,
but was designed to promote patriotism, and as such is consistent with the
neutrality principle," wrote Rosen (New York Times, 6/28/02).
Editorialized the Daily News (6/17/02): "The two words, viewed in the
context of the entire pledge, have nothing whatsoever to do with avowing
fealty to God."
Yet if one can believe President Dwight Eisenhower, who signed the bill
that added "under God" to the Pledge, that is precisely what altering the
oath was meant to accomplish. "In this way we are reaffirming the
transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future,"
Eisenhower announced at the time (Columbus Dispatch, 6/28/02). "From this
day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in
every city and town, every village and every rural schoolhouse, the
dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."
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