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A God-fearing people 

The Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because it includes the phrase “one nation, under God”? When I heard about the California court’s ruling, I thought: Well, yeah. Who could argue with that?

            Never underestimate the insecurity of religious folks, though. And never underestimate elected officials’ ability to pander.

            No sooner was the news reported than hysteria broke out in Washington. Congress was beside itself with rage. “Lawmakers,” the New York Times reported, “filled both houses Thursday morning to recite the oath, right hands over hearts, some shouting as they reached the phrase ‘one nation under God.’”

            “This absurd decision was made by a court run amok,” said Republican Representative Tom DeLay.

            The court’s decision was “nuts,” said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. “We are one nation under God.”

            Much of the support for the ruling has come from the usual suspects: atheists and the American Civil Liberties Union. So let me interject a personal note: I’m a lifelong, active, practicing Christian. I’m also an active, patriotic citizen of this country. I vote. I fly the flag. I say the Pledge (emphasizing “with liberty and justice for all,” not “under God”).

            I also recognize insecurity when I see it. The religious folks raising the biggest stink about the Pledge ruling are reacting out of fear. They want government to do what the church can’t do: make the diverse people of the United States conform to their religious principles.

            Other critics of the ruling have focused on the perceived triviality of the issue: In the overall scheme of things, they insist, having “under God” in the pledge is no big deal.

            “A generic two-word reference to God tucked inside a rote civic exercise is not a prayer,” said a Times editorial. Well, no, it’s not a prayer. But it’s not just state-imposed prayers that violate the Constitution. And the religious critics of the California court certainly don’t agree that “under God” is a generic phrase.

            Listen to the president: The United States, Bush said after the ruling, is a country that “values our relationship with an Almighty.”

            The words “one nation under God” in the Pledge, he said, are “a confirmation of the fact that we received our rights from God.”

            The president has every right to believe that we receive our rights from God. Many Americans believe that, too. But some do not. And one of this country’s most important principles is that each of us has the right to embrace --- or not embrace --- whatever religious beliefs we choose.

            If you want to grasp the seriousness of this issue, listen to Bush again: The country, he said after the ruling, needs “commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God.” And, the Times reported, Bush said he intends to appoint such judges.

            Do we want the president to use religious beliefs as a litmus test for appointing judges? Will he refuse to nominate a Muslim or a Hindu? Will he next insist that judges swear allegiance to Jesus?

            There’s nothing trivial about having a religious phrase in the Pledge (and yes, on our currency). And there’s nothing trivial about public officials’ reaction to the California ruling.

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