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.”