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Suppose it said 'under Allah'

By Libby Adler, 6/30/2002

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit provoked a clamor of condemnation on Wednesday when it decided that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public school classrooms violates the First Amendment.

The First Amendment contains a clause known as the "establishment clause," which prohibits government from recognizing "an establishment of religion." The problem with the pledge, in the court's view, lies with the words "under God," words that reflect a foundation of traditional religious belief. A public school, the court therefore held, has no business sponsoring its recitation.

Commentary since the decision was issued has focused on whether the Ninth Circuit made a mountain out of a molehill. President Bush immediately denounced the decision as "ridiculous" and vowed to appoint "common-sense judges" to the federal bench. By "common sense," the assumption is that he does not mean judges who favor abrogation of the establishment clause, but rather judges who would not make so much out of so little.

A caller on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" responded similarly, stating that despite his own atheism, he was not troubled by the two little words, and went further to disparage those who would make a big deal out of, say, the "in God we trust" printed on all US currency.

The two words were added to the pledge in 1954, for the purpose, according to President Eisenhower, of humbling its speakers and reminding us that our nation is more than its might - that it has a moral and spiritual purpose. It is difficult to quarrel with such a noble aim, and I confess that neither these two little words nor the proclamation on the dollar bill have ever interfered much with my day-to-day thoughts about personal rights nor compelled me to deem the pledge unfair.

I hope against the odds, nonetheless, that the decision will be upheld, not because the two words pack a punch that could knock out the First Amendment, but because they, along with the proclamation on our currency - and innumerable other tiny phrases, clauses, customs, and norms - constitute a barely visible web that people of good will should wish to see illuminated and disrupted.

The Christmas tree on the front steps of town hall, the obligatory "God Bless America" that concludes every major political speech, and the closing of the post office on Sundays, Christmas, and all of the other "American" holidays work in concert. Each on its own appears harmless, so minor as to lie outside the sphere of constitutional attention, but they accumulate to form a powerful dimension of American culture. The sense that each instance is insignificant, garnering the attention of only the petty, permits the larger web to rest comfortably at the level of assumption rather than deliberation. For many, these things create no friction. For others, however, they send a quiet but persistent message: This is a monotheistic, principally Christian country and everyone else, to a greater or lesser extent, is an outsider.

To those who feel this ruling is an overreaction and this analysis far-fetched, imagine for a moment waking up tomorrow in a country in which Allah's blessings were invoked routinely at public events, or where you were free to worship on Dec. 25, but you had to take a personal or vacation day to do it. The point is not that postal workers should be forced to work on Christmas, but rather that people of good will should pause to remember that the post office is closed to respect the traditions of many - but not all.

Even if Wednesday's decision is ultimately reversed by Bush's "common-sense" appointees, which many constitutional law scholars already anticipate, the Ninth Circuit did something valuable: It shined a spotlight on an aspect of American life that most people take for granted. It disrupted the web, if only temporarily. The two little words may seem just a molehill when viewed in isolation, but they are part of something vast and omnipresent that feels only natural to some, but embarrasses and excludes others.

Americans of whatever religious stripe who maintain a serious commitment to diversity and inclusiveness should bring that commitment even to the small things that together compose the whole.

Libby Adler is an assistant professor of law at Northeastern University.

This story ran on page H2 of the Boston Globe on 6/30/2002.
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