Is the Pledge of Allegiance a Religious Exercise?
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
In Newdow v. US (decided June 26, 2002), the US Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, in a decision written by Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, held that:
“In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation ‘under God’ is an endorsement of religion. It is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation ‘under God’ is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase ‘one nation under God’ in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and — since 1954 — monotheism.”June 26, 2002 - Newdow v. US
Tony Mauro, MS, Supreme Court Correspondent for Legal Times and Incisive Media, wrote in the article “‘Under God’ Doesn’t Belong in the Pledge” published in the June 2003 issue of the magazine Church & State:
“The Bush administration, in its petition to the high court, argues that the Pledge is not like a prayer or invocation. ‘Not every reference to God amounts to impermissible government-endorsed religious exercise,’ the government asserts. True enough. But for schoolchildren, reciting the Pledge in a ritualized way, with hand over chest, comes pretty close.
When you are saying the Pledge, you are not just reciting a nursery rhyme or passively handling a coin that has ‘In God We Trust’ on it. You are actively promising belief in and loyalty to a set of values that include, thanks to those two words, monotheism. Not everyone believes in that value. If the First Amendment means anything, those who don’t should not feel compelled to state that they do.”Nov. 13, 2002
Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, stated after signing Public Law 396 on June 14, 1954 which added the phrase “one Nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance:
“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning.
Especially is this meaningful as we regard today’s world. Over the globe, mankind has been cruelly torn by violence and brutality and, by the millions, deadened in mind and soul by a materialistic philosophy of life. Man everywhere is appalled by the prospect of atomic war. In this somber setting, this law and its effects today have profound meaning. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”June 14, 1954
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), wrote in the essay “‘Under God’ Should Be Removed from the Pledge of Allegiance” published in the 2006 book Opposing Viewpoints: Religion in America edited by Mary E. Williams:
“In adding ‘under God’ to the Pledge, Congress intended to make its recitation an affirmation of religious belief. The 1954 law adding ‘under God’ to the Pledge made affirmation of religious belief an official element of patriotism and religiosity an official element of national identity. Reciting the Pledge thus became a religious exercise—not because it refers to ‘God,’ but because it is a pledge.”2006
William Rehnquist, JD, former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, wrote in his June 14, 2004 concurring opinion in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (415 KB) :
“I do not believe that the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge converts its recital into a ‘religious exercise’… Instead, it is a declaration of belief in allegiance and loyalty to the United States flag and the Republic that it represents. The phrase ‘under God’ is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion… Reciting the Pledge, or listening to others recite it, is a patriotic exercise, not a religious one; participants promise fidelity to our flag and our Nation, not to any particular God, faith, or church.”June 14, 2004
The US Senate’s Subcommittee on the Constitution wrote in its Nov. 2003 amicus brief (854 KB) in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow:
“As a patriotic rather than religious exercise, the voluntary recitation of the Pledge cannot possibly fall within the prohibition of the Establishment Clause…
After all, references to God can be found in every one of our founding documents, in our National Anthem and National Motto, and on our public buildings and official currency… Logic and reason dictate that these commonplace and customary references to the Almighty, found in the basic civic documents and institutions of our nation, do not establish an official state religion in violation of the First Amendment, any more or less than does the reference to God that is contained in the Pledge of Allegiance…
The inclusion of the words ‘under God’ need not, and do not detract from our long-held understanding of the Pledge of Allegiance as an expression of patriotism and love of country, and not as an exercise of religious faith.”Nov. 2003
The Center for Individual Freedom wrote in their Dec. 19, 2003 amicus brief (204 KB) 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…
When individuals recite the Pledge, they are not swearing an allegiance to God. Rather, according to its precise text, they ‘pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands.'”Dec. 19, 2003
Ferdinand F. Fernandez, JD, US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Judge, wrote in his June 26, 2002 partial concurrence and partial dissent in Newdow v. US (65 KB):
“[S]uch phrases as ‘In God We Trust,’ or ‘under God’ have no tendency to establish a religion in this country or to suppress anyone’s exercise, or non-exercise, of religion, except in the fevered eye of persons who most fervently would like to drive all tincture of religion out of the public life of our polity. Those expressions have not caused any real harm of that sort over the years since 1791, and are not likely to do so in the future.”June 26, 2002