Must We Stand For
The 'Under God' Pledge?
[name withheld]

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From: "Positive Atheism" <>
To: "[name withheld]"
Date: August 23, 2001 1:14 AM

1. It is my understanding that a Supreme Court case now prohibits public schools from requiring students to pledge allegiance to the flag. This case was West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), and you can link to it on our Big List of Supreme Court Cases from Baylor University, under "Free Exercise Cases" in the sub-category of "Jehovah's Witnesses Cases." The last time I checked, the links still worked, and this link worked when I checked it today. If you ever forget where this list is, it is linked from our Big List of Quotations on the Court Cases page.

This case came about when the Jehovah's Witnesses decided that to salute the flag was the equivalent of bowing down to idols. The pointed to a Bible passage which prohibited Jews from honoring, among other things, "ensigns" (flags). Whatever their argument may have been is irrelevant: if they say that their religion forbids members from saluting the flag, then the government may not require them to salute the flag. This is very clear. Why there was even a controversy, much less a Supreme Court case, shows only the extent to which religious bigotry can destroy the lives of people who do not toe the party line of the majority.

The bottom line is that if the Supreme Court rules that the Jehovah's Witnesses may avoid saluting the flag on religious grounds, you may do likewise for similar reasons. Therefore, any law requiring you to salute the flag does not apply. In other words, any such law would be nullified as an illegal law.

However, many times, Congress and the states have gone ahead and passed laws that are unconstitutional. For example, even though it has been ruled illegal to force people to attend Twelve Step meetings, courts across the land still make this requirement on defendants -- most of whom are ignorant of the rulings that protect them from such abuse. This means that some states and districts probably still claim that they require students to salute the flag. This also means that some districts probably bluff any dissenters by trying to punish them through suspension or expulsion.

If this happens, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) should be contacted. Often the ACLU can stop injustice simply by contacting the offending district. If not, the process is sometimes painful: you must go ahead and take your lumps and then sue the district (which the ACLU would probably be happy to help you do -- even providing lawyers for you and helping you with expenses in anticipation of the court ruling that the district must pay the expenses).

Most districts do not wish to go through all this, particularly since the ACLU makes sure to publicize any and all such cases. Thus, most districts will go ahead and tell students that they are required to recite the pledge (if the district still makes this requirement -- most have abandoned this practice). Then, if a student objects, the school will accommodate that student by either allowing the student to sit out the ceremony or by allowing the student to arrive in class after the ceremony has completed. Because this is a lot of work and sends mixed messages to the other students, most school districts have abandoned the practice of reciting the Pledge altogether. I don't think it was ever a requirement in Oregon, and I know that when I was in school in California in the 1960s and '70s, we were allowed to not say it, to not put our hand over our heart, and in some cases, to even sit down during the ceremony. I don't know of anybody who had to resort to arriving in class late. By the time I was in Junior High (7th through 9th grades), recitation was sporadic, and when I entered High School, we did not say it at all. I'm not sure about what the grade schools did.

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2. One important angle for atheists to remember when opposing the Pledge is that the words "under God" were added during the Cold War, during the McCarthy Era of anti-atheist and anti-Communist hysteria. The anti-Communist movement was always an anti-atheist movement, as McCarthy himself declared when launching his "war": "Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity" (in his famous address to the Ohio County Women's Republican Club on February 9, 1950).

Because this wording ("under God") was intended specifically to endorse McCarthy's anti-atheist sentiments, we usually have a very easy time opposing any requirement to recite the pledge. Atheism is not a religion, but is a religious view in the sense that it is an opinion about religion: we do not go along with the claims of religion. As such, atheism is usually seen as being protected under the United States Constitution as a religious view.

Many important cases have backed our right to freedom from religion -- rhetoric emanating from the most recent Presidential election notwithstanding. In Everson v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court ruled that:

The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.
    -- Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority

Justice William O. Douglas has explained the Establishment Clause this way:

The religious freedom which the First Amendment protects has many facets:

1. No sectarian authority shares in the power of government nor sits in its councils.
2. Government has no directive influence in any of the affairs of any church.
3. Citizens are not taxed for the support of any religious institution and no church has any claim on any of the public revenues.
4. People can belong to any church they desire -- or to none at all; and no one is bound to have a ceremony such as marriage performed by any sectarian authority.
5. In disputes between sects or factions of a church over the management of church affairs the civil courts apply not the law applicable to secular affairs but the law that the governing bodies of the church have provided to govern their internal affairs.
6. Public schools are not proper agencies for religious education, though there is no constitutional reason why the state cannot adjust the schedules of the public schools to allow time for the students to get religious instruction elsewhere.
7. Parents and children have the privilege of patronizing private religious schools, rather than public ones, if they so desire.
8. An exercise or ritual may not be exacted by the state from an individual, if it runs counter to his religious convictions.
9. Religious liberty includes not only the conventional methods of worship but the unorthodox as well, such as distributing religious literature from door to door.
10. No license may be exacted by the state for the performance of any religious exercise nor a tax imposed on it.
11. Although the matter has not been authoritatively decided, it would seem that religious liberty extends to atheists as well as to theists, to those who find their religion in ethics and morality, rather than in a Supreme Being.
12. What may be pagan exercises to one person may be a devotional to another. In general it is no business of the government what rite or practice a person selects as a part of his religious beliefs; and he may not be punished for practicing or avowing it.
    -- William O. Douglas, The Right of the People (1958), pp. 91-92

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism" <>
To: "Satan"
Subject: Re:
Date: August 23, 2001 6:31 AM

I'm sorry! In all that I forgot to make clear that they cannot make you participate in the Pledge of Allegiance ceremony. If you can show that standing is an element of participation, then they cannot make you stand. If they try to make a big issue about it, you've got your work cut out for you.

What's probably going to happen is that you'll object to standing, and they'll want to know what's wrong with standing (they will tell you that it's polite to stand, etc.). You'll have to come up with a rock-solid reason why you find it objectionable to stand. If you were a Jehovah's Witness, standing could conceivably be seen as a form of honoring the flag. As an atheist, you'll have to be more creative than that. Your easiest bet would be to request that you not even be exposed to it, and that you be allowed either to leave the room or to arrive after the ceremony is completed.

Also, if it's just the "under God" part that you find objectionable, then you would do well to exploit the fact that "under God" was added during the McCarthy Era. Point out that McCarthy's motive was more anti-atheist than anti-Communist (as he made clear in that first speech). This angle would probably get you the furthest (in my opinion) but it would mean that if the United States were to revert to the original Pledge of Allegiance, you would become willing to stand and recite it with the others. That's the payoff for taking that angle. It's a stretch, but I could see them changing it back if somebody made a clear enough case that it was put in there as an statement against this minority group known as atheists.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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