The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could have a major impact on the traditional dividing line between religion and government in American life.
Outside the Supreme Court, supporters of keeping the Pledge of Allegiance as is said it in unison in a ritual familiar to school-age children across the country.
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.
It is the phrase, under God, which is at the heart of the case now before the Supreme Court.
The Pledge was written in 1892 as a patriotic loyalty oath. The words under God were added in 1954 at the height of the Cold War to draw a contrast with what religious leaders said at the time was 'Godless Communism.' But the reference to God offends Michael Newdow, an atheist from California who says that inclusion of the words under God in the Pledge violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Mr. Newdow personally argued his case before the Supreme Court justices, contending that his nine-year-old daughter should not have to hear the reference to God even though reciting the Pledge in school is voluntary.
"I am a parent. I have an absolute right to know that when my child goes to the public schools, she is not going to be indoctrinated with any religious dogma," says Mr. Newdow. "I am not asking for them to say that there is no God. I want government to stay out of the religion business so that every religious opinion in this nation gets respected equally by the government."
The mother of Mr. Newdow's child opposes his suit. She is a Christian and supports the Pledge as is. The two are not married.
Attorneys for the California school district where Mr. Newdow's daughter lives and for the Bush administration argued that the Pledge of Allegiance should be upheld with the reference to God because it is a ceremonial, patriotic exercise, not a prayer.
A number of conservative and religious groups filed legal briefs urging the high court to keep the Pledge intact.
"The Pledge of Allegiance reference to God reflects an historical truth that our Founding Fathers believed that rights, liberty and freedom derived from God to mankind, rather than simply from government," says Jay Sekulow who is with a group called the American Center for Law and Justice. "That is what our founders believed, that is what the Pledge incorporates and clearly that is where the direction of the Supreme Court seemed to be going today."
Outside the high court, a circus atmosphere prevailed as activists on both sides of the issue held protests and engaged in debate.
In addition to atheist groups, religious activists held a prayer vigil and called on the Supreme Court justices to maintain the reference to God in the Pledge.
The Reverend Rob Schenck is spokesman for a religious group known as the National Clergy Council. He led a prayer on the Supreme Court steps. "And so Jesus we pray here today that you guide and lead. We especially pray for the eight justices who will be hearing this case that God they would respond to the Constitution, to 87-percent of the American public who want the phrase, "one nation under God," kept in the pledge," he says. "And God, guide them."
A new poll indicates that Americans support keeping the Pledge of Allegiance intact by a margin of about nine to one.
Michael Newdow argued before the court that keeping the reference to God in the Pledge is unconstitutional and would offend those who do not believe in God. But some of his opponents warn of a political backlash in this year's presidential election if the Supreme Court declares the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional.
"If this court tramples on the rights of the people and on the Constitution, millions of Americans will resist the court's ruling and respond this fall. Mark my words," says Steve Elliot, president of a conservative religious group called Grassfire.org. "What this court does with this case could change the dynamics of what happens in this country this year."
The Supreme Court is expected to render a decision in the case sometime before the end of June.