Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias It was during my first day as a first-grader at Humboldt Public School that I was introduced, in a very solemn fashion by my classroom teacher Mrs. Masters, to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Since we didn�t know how to read yet, she helped us recite it. And at the beginning of every day, we�d say it, with her help. She�d say a line, and we�d repeat it.

Eventually, we had one line memorized, and no longer needed her help. And then another. And another.

None of us really noticed the �one nation under God� part as being unusual or controversial.

Most of us had all learned about religion and a higher power by attending Sunday school and church. I can�t say whether all of us believed all of those religious concepts at a tender age.

But like I mentioned before, reciting the pledge was never a big deal.

With Mrs. Masters� help, we all learned to read. She helped us, in a short nine month�s time, meet all of the requirements to enter the second grade, where we were introduced to Mrs. Eggee, one of the most fascinating women I�ve ever known.

Mrs. Eggee was a world traveler, a person who constantly was prying our eyes open to get a global view of human society.

Her lessons weren�t limited to just our textbooks and work sheets. We went around the world with her. She brought slides of photos she had taken during her travels. She showed us how people live and build homes and cities in places like Israel, India, Japan and the Pacific islands.

She taught us the customs and beliefs of Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Native Americans.

We soaked it all up like a sponge. She made each lesson incredible. In her fascinating way, she made us aware that our customs, our beliefs, our way of life weren�t shared by everyone.

We also learned a few things about early American history as youngsters that, today, seem to make this whole Pledge of Allegiance controversy a minor irritation that should just go away.

For example, we learned about how the Founding Fathers worked and worked to draft a Declaration of Independence. Mrs. Eggee made sure we knew that it was signed July 4, and that�s why we celebrate on that day each year.

The first paragraph of the declaration mentions God. The second, more famous paragraph does, too. I�m paraphrasing here (second grade was a long time ago) �We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.�

To the best of my knowledge, the Declaration of Independence hasn�t been banned from public schools. There�s a good reason for that. The document doesn�t represent the establishment of a state religion and it�s not an attempt to establish a state religion.

Why do we have such a problem grasping onto to the spirit (pardon if that word offends) of those words? We seem to be turning into a society that�s so afraid to offend that we�re becoming afraid to believe. It should be just the opposite.

What�s next? No more decorating Main Street with holiday lights every winter and placing Nativity scenes (or scenes of other religious beliefs) on public grounds?

Ten years ago, in a case called Lee vs. Weisman, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a state may not sponsor prayers long customary at school graduation ceremonies � not even when the saying of those prayers is rotated among representatives of a community�s various faiths.

But the five justices certain of the unconstitutionality of such prayers made no comment on the fact that, right before the invocation was uttered (by a local rabbi), the students at Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, RI, stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that the students had indeed said the pledge, and he proceeded to examine that fact in light of the reasoning advanced in the majority opinion.

Under the First Amendment�s establishment clause, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the court, �government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise to act in a way which establishes a state religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.� The graduation prayer, Justice Kennedy concluded, flunked the coercion test.

But so, contended Justice Scalia, would the pledge: �If students were psychologically coerced to remain standing during the invocation, they must also have been psychologically coerced, moments before, to stand for (and thereby, in the court�s view, take part in or appear to take part in) the pledge.�

Justice Scalia then asked: �Must the pledge therefore be barred from the public schools?�

Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals answered that question in the affirmative with its 2-1 decision in Newdow vs. United States.

Should this court decision ultimately be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, the case�s outcome could rely mainly on the deliberations of Justices Kennedy and Sandra Day O�Connor, author of the so-called endorsement test, which also threatens the pledge. For both justices, this case would raise the question of whether what they once wrote is really what they meant.

Should Kennedy and O�Connor have second thoughts, the court might develop, at last, some badly needed First Amendment doctrine. It would be doctrine, consistent with the text and history of the Constitution, that distinguishes between real establishments of religion and phantom establishments, such as the inscription of �In God We Trust� on our coins or the inclusion of �under God� in the pledge.

Such doctrine, by permitting the appropriate accommodation of religion in public life, would put an end to basically frivolous cases � like Newdow vs. United States.

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