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Taking God’s Name In Vain

After a tortuous legal journey, the United States Supreme Court has finally heard Elk Grove Unified School District versus Newdow–better known as the “under God” case. A decision is expected later this spring.

The particulars are well known by now. Avowed atheist Michael Newdow sued the Elk Grove School district, because he didn’t want his 9-year-old daughter saying the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Newdow argued that using those words in the pledge was coercing his daughter to acknowledge a God he believes does not exist.

When the case reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2002, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Newdow. Maintaining that the words violated the constitutional mandate for a separation of religion and government, the court ordered that schools in California cease using the words “under God” as part of the pledge. This set off an avalanche of protest around the country and generated a flurry of legislative initiatives aimed at overturning or by-passing the court’s decision.

The Supreme Court has an opportunity to settle the matter, but it will be a tough call either way. If the high court upholds the findings of the lower court we can expect a veritable frenzy of anti-court sentiment to sweep the country. According to recent polls, over 80 percent of the American people favor the inclusion of the words “under God” in the pledge. It will take some judicial backbone to rule against that kind of majority.

There is a chance the court will simply punt on the issue. It turns out that Newdow does not have exclusive custody of this daughter. He shares custody with the mother, who is a believer and is raising the little girl as a Christian. The high court could seize on this fact and rule that Newdow does not have a basis to file a suit. The ruling would end the case without settling the matter.

If the justices uphold the lower court and find the words unconstitutional, the hard core religious right will most certainly attack the validity of the court–but of course, they pretty much do that already. Ironically, if the court ruled to keep the words in the pledge we can be pretty sure that the religious right would gladly to accept the court’s authority as the law of the land—at least in this case. I am not sure we can have a legal system in which we accept as law only the rulings we agree with.

Be that as it may, overturning the Ninth Circuit and allowing the pledge to stand as is will please a large majority of Americans. In order to reach this decision the court will have to decide that the words “under God” do not constitute a religious affirmation. This will mean that that the justices find the reference to God in the pledge innocuous, not having any theological meaning, but rather functioning as a sort of “ceremonial deism.”

It is baffling to me how anyone would view such a ruling as a victory for the faith. It would be as if the court said, “Sure, leave the words in there, they are so void of meaning that saying them in the ritual repetition of the pledge doesn’t really mean anything.”

Shouldn’t people of faith be concerned that such a decision will diminish the meaning of God’s name by rendering it legally irrelevant?  Doesn’t that come dangerously close to taking God’s name in vain?

James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.