Thursday, September 15, 2005

Choose your battles wisely (Pledge)

I've been reading various opinions about yesterday's Pledge of Allegiance decision, in particular written by atheists and secularists. (See the comment thread here at the Volokh Conspiracy for a typical discussion.) I've heard the arguments many times before from friends and acquaintances as well - that the words "under God" establish religion, are coercive when a teacher in a public school leads the pledge recitation, that they violate separation of church and state. I strongly disagree with these arguments, both from the standpoints of policy and constitutionality. But that's not the point of this post.

What would be the long term effect if in the end the Supreme Court does rule that recitation of the Pledge in schools is unconstitutional? Michael Newdow has likely undertaken his crusade on principle without much thought for the fallout. Polls clearly indicate that a vast majority of Americans do not think the words "under God" in the pledge are unconstitutional and should remain - 84-89% in this poll (scroll down). The majority is not always right - that's why we have protections in the Bill of Rights. But when the majority is as strong as it appears to be in this case it seems likely that that majority would take action to oppose a court ruling. In the case of the pledge I think it is extremely likely that a SCOTUS ruling would spark a movement to amend the constitution to explicitly allow (at a minimum) such ceremonial religious references. With support in the 80+% range, it would be likely to pass. (Such an amendment might well be very narrow in scope, but impact on interpretation of the First Amendment would be unknown.)

The concept of separation of church and state, not explicitly contained in our Constitution, has gained general acceptance in this country over the past century. Secularists have made significant strides towards removing religion from public life, in ways that would certainly surprise the drafters of the First Amendment. But the Pledge case (and related efforts such as removing "In God We Trust" from the currency) seems to me to be overreach. The backlash could well result in constitutional amendments that would set back the secularists cause. Thus the title of this post - choose your battles wisely, because some tactical victories may lead to defeat,

For the record, I do not think Newdow will prevail in his suit. I think it will be reversed by either the Ninth Circuit or the Supremes.

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