A constitutional challenge to the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that is recited every day by U.S. schoolchildren, has been dismissed by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the challenger, atheist Michael Newdow, “lacks standing” to speak on behalf of his daughter.
Newdow’s challenge argued that the wording of the pledge violates his right to raise his daughter according to his own beliefs.
The broader question of whether the Pledge of Allegiance violates the separation of church and state was effectively sidestepped by the ruling which stated that Newdow, who is engaged in a custody battle with his daughter’s mother, does not have sufficient authority, and thus the legal right, to speak for his child.
"When hard questions of domestic relations are sure to affect the outcome, the prudent course is for the federal court to stay its hand rather than reach out to resolve a weighty question of federal constitutional law," said Justice John Paul Stevens.
The Supreme Court’s 8-0 ruling came on the 50th anniversary of the addition of the words "under God" to the pledge in an effort, during the cold war, to distinguish American patriotism, which has religious roots, from that of communism, which is overtly atheistic. Congress adopted the new wording on June 14, 1954.
The court’s opinion overturns a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals two years ago which stated that recitation of the pledge, was unconstitutional in tax-supported schools.
The Bush administration, however, argued that the reference to God is an “official acknowledgment of our nation’s religious heritage,” and it is far fetched to argue that they go any way towards “establishing” religion in the classroom and thus violating the First Amendment.
While five of the Justices did not comment beyond the ruling that there was no grounds for the case, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Justice Clarence Thomas voted to uphold the phrase “under God” in the pledge as a consititutional matter.
Justice Antonin Scalia did not participate in the case.