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California Ruling on Pledge of Allegiance Sparks Fervent Debate - 2002-06-27

A controversial federal appeals court ruling that the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because it refers to God has sparked widespread condemnation from President Bush, members of Congress and the American public. The court decision has sparked a national debate.

Generations of American children have grown up reciting the pledge in school. The pledge itself consists of only 31 words: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

But the two words 'under God' bothered Michael Newdow, a California doctor and atheist who did not want his eight-year-old daughter subjected to what he believes is religious indoctrination in public school. Mr. Newdow argued that including the reference to God in the pledge violates the constitutional safeguards separating church and state and two of three of judges on a federal appeals court in California agreed with him.

Michael Newdow told NBC television that he has received death threats because of his stand. "My goal is to strengthen the Constitution," he said, "and we are not supposed to have religion infused into our society by government, and that is my goal."

The court ruling has sparked outrage among the public, and at the G-8 Summit in Canada, President Bush said the ruling was "out of step with the traditions and history of America" and vowed to take action. "We need common sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God," he said. "Those are the kinds of judges I intend to put on the bench."

The ruling also drew sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress. Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg of Montana said, "I do pledge allegiance to the flag and I am proud to say that, despite the beliefs of the 9th Circuit [federal appeals court] that this is still one nation under God."

In fact, both the House and Senate made a big show of support for keeping the Pledge of Allegiance as is. Senate Chaplain, the Reverend Lloyd Ogilvie, said, "We affirm that we are one Senate, united under you, to lead a nation that is free to say confidently, in God we trust."

House members also made a point of reciting the pledge together, with great emphasis on the words, 'under God'.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Baptist Minister in 1892. The words 'under God' were added by an act of Congress in 1954 to help counter the threat of what many lawmakers referred to at the time as 'Godless Communism.' Students are not required to recite the pledge if they do not want to.

Many legal experts predict that the ruling will be struck down, either by the full federal appeals court based in California or by the U.S. Supreme Court, should the case go that far.