The Supreme Court preserved the phrase “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance, effectively quashing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ March decision against the phrase, in a ruling held on Monday, June 14, 2004.
The eight justices from the High Court held a unanimous decision that Michael Newdow, and atheist from California, could not sue to ban the patriotic pledge from his daughter’s school and others because he did not have the legal authority to speak for her. Newdow is currently in a custody fight with the girl’s mother, Sandra Banning. Banning told the court she had no objection to the pledge.
While the decision itself did not address the wider issue of the constitutionality of the pledge itself, several of the justices, including the Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, justice Sandra Day O'Connor and justice Clarence Thomas, wrote separately that they believe the Pledge, which is recited by school children across the nation, does not violate the constitution.
The high court’s opinion overturns a ruling made two years ago that the teacher-led pledge would violate the first amendment separation of church and state, if recited in public schools. The appeals court decision, which would have stripped the reference to God from the pledge, sparked a firestorm of criticism from almost all Americans, especially Christians, teachers and the Bush administration.
The administration asked the high court to rule against Newdow, and expressed that the reference to God in the pledge is more about ceremony and history than about religion.
The reference is an "official acknowledgment of our nation's religious heritage," similar to the "In God We Trust" stamped on coins and bills, Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued to the court.
The supporters of the pledge praised the Monday ruling, saying that the decision removes a cloud from the pledge.
"While the court did not address the merits of the case, it is clear that the Pledge of Allegiance and the words 'under God' can continue to be recited by students across America," said Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.
Mathew Staver, President and General Counsel of the Christian-based Liberty Counsel, stated, “We are pleased that the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is to uphold the constitutionality of the pledge of allegiance. Schoolchildren in states covered by the Ninth Circuit can now say the entire pledge of allegiance without fear of censorship
“Justices Rehnquist, Thomas and O’Connor are correct that the pledge of allegiance is constitutional. Our history is not complete without God. If “under God” were removed, many history books and founding documents will be in jeopardy, not the least of which is the Declaration of Independence.”
The Alliance Defense Fund – a Christian-based civil liberties group, also praised the decision, but warned that the battle for the Pledge is likely to continue.
"The good news is that the Supreme Court vacated an extreme, poorly reasoned decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,” said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for ADF, who worked on the Pledge case.
“Because the case was dismissed on a technicality, and only three of the eight justices went on record in support of the constitutionality of the words, ‘under God’ in the Pledge, we believe the battle will continue. The Alliance Defense Fund will be there to defend the words ‘under God’ for future generations of school children,” added Lorence. “One nation under God’ is a statement of political philosophy, not a religious prayer. It has been routinely used for more than 200 years of American history, long before the Congress added it to the Pledge.”
Both the Liberty Counsel and the Alliance Defense Fund filed an Amicus Brief at the United States Supreme Court in the case, which was named Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 02-1624.