Do the Words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance Improperly Endorse Religion?
General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
Editor’s Note: Since 2009 when this question was last reviewed for updates, discussion of this aspect of the debate has all but disappeared in the public sphere.
July 15, 2021
The American Civil Liberties Union, a civil liberties defense organization, in an article written by Staff Attorney Margaret Crosby entitled “The Values of the Pledge of Allegiance,” published in the Nov./Dec. 2002 issue of ACLU News, argued:
“In adding ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, Congress intended to put religion in public school…
50 years later, a law requiring school children to pledge allegiance to a nation ‘under God’ cannot be reconciled with the Supreme Court’s strict constitutional precedents on religion in public school…
Pretending that the phrase [under God] is purely secular is both untrue and devalues religion…
The Pledge is not simply a passive reference to religion; it calls upon children in public school to promise loyalty to the concept of their country as under God.”Nov.-Dec., 2002 - American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
In the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case Newdow v. U.S. (2002), in a 2-1 decision written by Judge Goodwin, the court held:
“The Pledge, as currently codified, is an impermissible government endorsement of religion because it sends a message to unbelievers ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community’…
Although the defendants argue that the religious content of ‘one nation under God’ is minimal, to an atheist or a believer in certain non-Judeo-Christian religions or philosophies, it may reasonably appear to be an attempt to enforce a ‘religious orthodoxy’ of monotheism, and is therefore impermissible. The coercive effect of this policy is particularly pronounced in the school setting given the age and impressionability of schoolchildren, and their understanding that they are required to adhere to the norms set by their school, their teacher and their fellow students.”June 26, 2002 - Newdow v. US
Doug Laycock, JD, and Counsel of Record for 32 Christian and Jewish clergy urging the removal of “under God” from the pledge, argued at a March 19, 2004 debate at the National Press Club entitled “Under God? Pledge of Allegiance Constitutionality”:
“I think the Pledge of Allegiance is different from all these other examples… It’s different from ‘In God We Trust’ on the coins… In the Pledge of Allegiance, we ask every child in the public schools in America every morning for a personal profession of faith. You don’t have to take out your coin and read and meditate on ‘In God We Trust’…
Now if God does not exist, or if I believe that God does not exist, then that isn’t one nation under God. We can’t have a nation under God unless there is a God. It doesn’t say one nation under our god, or some gods, or one of the gods. It pretty clearly implies there is only one God, and if there is only one God, then the God of the Pledge is the one true God, and other alleged gods around the world are false gods…
The largest private opinion polls have about 15 percent of the population not subscribing to any monotheistic conception of God… That’s 15 percent of the population, with 7.2 million children in public schools who are being asked to personally affirm every morning a religious belief that is different from the religious belief that is taught or held in their home and by their parents… It is different from all the other kinds of ceremonial deism that go on in the country…
People don’t get angry at a recital of historical and demographic facts. People get angry because they know what it means; it’s plain English. They believe what it means, they want people to say what it means, they want their kids to say what it means. And I’ll tell you a dirty little secret: They want to coerce other kids to say what it means and what they believe to be true. They know that ‘under God’ means under God.”Mar. 19, 2004 - Douglas Laycock, JD
Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote in their Feb. 13, 2004 amicus brief in the US Supreme Court case Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow:
“Schoolchildren would reasonably perceive the Pledge as expressing religious belief and affirming a religious ideal. They are unlikely to perceive ‘under God’ as merely descriptive of historical or cultural fact…
Moreover, it would take a very subtle six-year-old to view the averment that ours is ‘one Nation under God’ – when proclaimed as part of a daily classroom ritual, and beginning with the words ‘I pledge’ – as simply an ‘acknowledgment’ of beliefs that other people hold or once held and that might or might not be true…
Social science research has indeed found that, insofar as young schoolchildren asribe any meaning to the Pledge, they perceive ‘under God’ as expressing religious belief…
The fact that ‘under God’ is included in a patriotic text does not diminish but compounds the constitutional violation. Far from imbuing the phrase with redeeming ‘secular purposes’… the phrase impermissibly conditions an expression of patriotism on affirmation of religion and religious belief… As the Court has emphasized, the Establishment Clause prohibits government from ‘making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community’… The pressure on a child to affirm religion and religious belief by reciting the Pledge is only magnified by the fact that refraining from reciting it can be construed by teacher and classmates as lack of patriotism.”Feb. 13, 2004 - AU Pledge Brief
Americans United for Separation of Church and State explains in its “One Nation ‘Under God’ Questions and Answers,” (accessed on June 13, 2006) that:
“The Pledge was a purely patriotic exercise until Congress in 1954 made it a patriotic and religious exercise. Millions of Americans who have no religious beliefs or who object to religious-political entanglement were alienated by that change… Not all religious people agree with so-called ‘generic’ references to God. These references tend to reflect Judeo-Christians understandings of God that may not be shared by Buddhists, Hindus and others… The phrase ‘under God’ has obvious religious meanings. It is not drained of its religious meaning merely because of frequent repetition.”June 13, 2006 - Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU)
American Humanist Association President Mel Lipman said in a Sep. 14, 2005 press release:
“The practice of reciting the Pledge in public schools specifically targets children, inculcating them with a monotheistic message not held by millions of Americans. This is not a passive reading of a historic document but an active swearing of a loyalty oath to one’s country and, since 1954, an avowal that our nation exists ‘under God,’ which is tantamount to prayer.
The First Amendment does not require hostility toward religion, but mandates government neutrality toward religion. By imposing a religious belief on those without such beliefs, the current version of the Pledge utterly fails this test.”Sep. 14, 2005 - American Humanist Association
Erwin Chemerinsky, JD, Professor at New York University School of Law, in his Oct. 15, 2003 commentary, “Court Must Buck Political Pressure in Pledge Case,” published in the Los Angeles Times, wrote:
“Some contend that omitting the words ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance constitutes hostility toward religion. Quite the contrary, the goal is to be neutral toward religion. The law is clear: It is impermissible to hold religious ceremonies in public schools. There’s nothing hostile in pointing out that asking students to affirm a belief in God is an inherently religious act. The place for religious declarations, including a belief in God, is in our hearts, our homes and our places of worship – but not in official public school activities.”Oct. 15, 2003 - Erwin Chemerinsky, JD
Ari Fleischer, the former White House Press Secretary, said at a June 26, 2002 press briefing:
“The president’s reaction was that this ruling [on June 26, 2002 declaring ‘under God’ in the Pledge as unconstitutional] is ridiculous.
The Supreme Court itself begins each of its sessions with the phrase ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’… The Declaration of Independence refers to God or to the creator four different times. Congress begins each session of the Congress each day with a prayer, and of course our currency says, ‘In God We Trust.’ The view of the White House is that this was a wrong decision and the Department of Justice is now evaluating how to seek redress.”June 26, 2002 - Ari Fleischer
American Center for Law and Justice Cheif Counsel Jay Sekulow argued for the organization in a Mar. 19, 2004 National Press Club debate titled “Under God? Pledge of Allegiance Constitutionality”:
“Let me give you five reasons why the Pledge of Allegiance is constitutional and should be affirmed by the Court as not violating the Establishment Clause.
- The Pledge of Allegiance is not in a form of prayer.
- The Pledge of Allegiance does not refer to Christianity or any other particular religion.
- The religious portion of the Pledge of Allegiance is only two words.
- The Pledge of Allegiance was recited unchanged for 50 years before the Court considered the question.
- And no one can be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance…
I think that the words ‘God save the United States and this Honorable Court,’ like the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, echo what our founding fathers thought, and that was that our freedoms, rights and liberties are derived not from government but rather from God granting them to mankind. And in a sense, it’s a very Lockean concept. Thomas Jefferson talks about it. And even, of course, in the Declaration of Independence itself…where it’s written, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Amongst them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’…
Our country was founded on the concepts that the rights of man don’t derive from a king and they can’t be taken away from us by a king. The rights of mankind, the basic rights of mankind – liberty, freedom, the things that we cherish in this country – derive from a Creator. That’s what our founding fathers mean…
It’s [the phrase ‘under God’] not a theological statement. It is a statement that reflects an historical fact. This is what our founding fathers believed, and so I don’t think it presents either a constitutional crisis or a theological one.”Mar. 19, 2004 - American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)
William Rehnquist, JD, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, in his 2004 concurrence in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, stated:
“The phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge seems, as a historical matter, to sum up the attitude of the Nation’s leaders, and to manifest itself in many of our public observances. Examples of patriotic invocations of God and official acknowledgments of religion’s role in our Nation’s history abound…
The motto ‘In God We Trust’ first appeared on the country’s coins during the Civil War…
Our Court Marshal’s opening proclamation concludes with the words ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’…
All of these events strongly suggest that our national culture allows public recognition of our Nation’s religious history and character…
The phrase ‘under God’ is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion.”June 14, 2004 - Elk Grove v. Newdow William Rehnquist, JD
The Anti-Defamation League wrote in its June 27, 2002 press release titled “ADL Says Appeals Court Ruling on ‘One Nation Under God’ Was Wrong”:
“The statement, ‘one nation under God’ does not proclaim nor endorse any religion. And we hope that it will be reversed on appeal, to return to the American people a constitutional ability to express themselves in a Pledge of Allegiance which includes a recognition of God.”June 27, 2002 - Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
Alberto Gonzalez, JD, 80th United States Attorney General, issued a press release on Sep. 15, 2005 stating:
“For more than two hundred years, many of our expressions of national identity and patriotism have referenced God. The Supreme Court, which opens each session by saying ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court,’ has affirmed time and again that such official acknowledgments of our Nation’s religious heritage, foundation, and character are constitutional. The Department of Justice will continue vigorously to defend the ability of American schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to the flag.”Sep. 15, 2005 - Alberto Gonzales, JD
The Center for Individual Freedom wrote in their Dec. 19, 2003 amicus brief for Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow:
“Neither the Pledge nor its recitation constitutes a forbidden religious exercise because pledging allegiance is, by its very nature, purpose, and effect, a secular activity-an individual statement of patriotism and respect for this country and its primary symbol.”Dec. 19, 2003 - Center for Individual Freedom
The U.S. Department of Justice, in its 2004 brief for the US Supreme Court case Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, argued:
“For four decades, opinions of this Court and of individual Justices have spoken with unparalleled unanimity in affirming the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance, characterizing its reference to God as a permissible acknowledgment of the Nation’s religious heritage and character. That settled understanding has informed the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence and is entitled to respect…
[T]he reference to God in the Pledge is not reasonably and objectively understood as endorsing or coercing individuals into silent assent to any particular religious doctrine. Rather, the Pledge is ‘consistent with the proposition that government may not communicate an endorsement of religious belief,’ because the reference to God acknowledges the undeniable historical facts that the Nation was founded by individuals who believed in God, that the Constitution’s protection of individual rights and autonomy reflects those religious convictions, and that the Nation continues as a matter of demographic and cultural fact to be ‘a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.'”2004 - USDOJ Elk Grove brief US Department of Justice (DOJ)
Lisa Shaw Roy, JD, Assistant Professor of Law at University of Mississippi School of Law, wrote in her Spring 2004 article entitled “The Establishment Clause and the Concept of Inclusion” published in the Oregon Law Review:
“While the principle that public schools cannot organize and facilitate religious practices such as prayer has long been recognized, the Ninth Circuit decision was controversial because it strikes two words from the Pledge based on the subjective experience of listeners. Many unfamiliar with the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause doctrine would not have supposed that being required to listen to a phrase such as ‘under God’ would amount to a constitutional harm. And those same persons, when posed with the question of whether they believed the Pledge of Allegiance to be a religious exercise, would have probably answered ‘no.’ Thus Michael Newdow’s claim can be seen as doubly anomalous, resting on the feelings of a religious outsider when required to passively listen to a marginally religious message…
[T]he Establishment Clause should not be interpreted as requiring elimination of every religious message or practice. Demanding inclusion merely inverts the classifications of judicial winners and losers, but does little to promote the overall well-being of society’s members.”Spring 2004 - Lisa Shaw Roy, JD