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Law & Courts Opinion

Rights and Rituals

January 01, 2004 3 min read
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Do we really believe that young people will lead more virtuous lives if they are forced to pray in school or be more devoted to the United States if they are required to pledge allegiance to the flag?

By now, most of us have heard of former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who put up a monument to the Ten Commandments at his Montgomery courthouse and was subsequently fired by a state judicial ethics panel for refusing to remove it. About the same time that Judge Moore was defying a court order—and attracting droves of supporters—the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a legal challenge to school-led recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. Suddenly, another skirmish had erupted in the never-ending culture wars fought so often in the nation’s schools.

We Americans have been schizophrenic about religion and public life since the first settlers came ashore four centuries ago. Many of them were fleeing religious persecution and were understandably opposed to state-sponsored religion in the “new world” (unless, of course, it was their religion).

Wary Founding Fathers drafted the First Amendment to ensure a permanent separation of church and state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....” As it turned out, those words provided the context for battles that continue to this day.

The Constitution’s authors were themselves devout Christians, for the most part, and they—and many politicians and jurists who followed them—believed that the United States was founded on a Judeo-Christian heritage. So they allowed for glaring inconsistencies in policy and practice. The U.S. Congress, for example, begins its sessions with a formal prayer. Our currency bears the motto “In God We Trust.” Elected officials swear an oath on the Bible when they enter office. Symbols and words of Christianity emblazon public monuments. Federal tuition grants are spent by college students in parochial institutions.

Is it any wonder people are confused? Public opinion polls triggered by Judge Moore’s actions show that more than two-thirds of Americans support prayer in schools; more than half believe that students should be required to pray in school and that school ceremonies, from football games to graduation, should begin with prayer. Of course, these folks mean Christian prayer. If their children attended a predominantly Muslim school and the principal made them pray to Allah, they would be outraged.

The Pledge of Allegiance is back in court because two words, “under God,” were added in 1954, transforming a patriotic oath into a prayer. One could argue—and courts have—that compulsory recitation of the Pledge, even without “under God,” is unconstitutional. As one high court opinion put it: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Americans tend to be so passionate about cultural symbols like the Pledge that we often miss the inherent conflict between majority sentiment and individual freedom. There is a contradiction in the belief that an individual can be compelled to be patriotic and loyal to democratic ideals. Every American has the right to pray to whatever god he or she chooses; nobody has the right to insist we pray to a particular god. Do we really believe that young people will lead more virtuous lives if they are forced to pray in school or be more devoted to the United States if they are required to pledge allegiance to the flag?

Francis Bellamy, a Baptist clergyman, wrote the Pledge in 1892. He was chairman of a National Education Association committee of state school superintendents and planned to introduce the oath as part of a quadricentennial celebration of Columbus Day. Bellamy wanted to include the word “equality” (as in, “with liberty, justice, and equality for all”) but did not do so, knowing that many state superintendents were against equality for women and African Americans. Perhaps students would learn more about democracy (and hypocrisy) pondering that historical fact than they would participating in the ritual.

—Ronald A. Wolk

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A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Rights and Rituals

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