2004-04-02 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the
Editor's Desk


The following column was published in The Wave on July 6, 2002. In the intervening time, the case has gone to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last week. One commentator has said of the case, "What's under attack is no less than the entire understanding of human rights on which this country is based." Because the issue has once again become current and because it is of such importance to many people, I believe that it becomes germane to revisit what I previously wrote in these pages.

The Ninth Circuit Court is often wrong. Its decisions have been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court more often than any other court in the nation. It is ultra-Liberal and ultra-kooky.

Having said that, however, it was right to rule that the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools is unconstitutional as long as it has the words "Under God" as part of its message.

I was not around when the original words for the pledge were written in 1892. I was not around when those words were changed in 1923 from "I pledge allegiance to my flag," to "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," in response to the fact that so many Americans were immigrants and it was not "my flag" to those immigrants

I was only three years old in 1942, when Congress, in the political fervor of World War II, officially sanctioned the pledge.

I am, however, old enough to remember the 1954 campaign to add the words "Under God" to the pledge. There are many around who would tell you that it was a grass roots movement from people all over the nation and of all faiths that demanded the change, but that would be pure hogwash.

The words "Under God" were added to the pledge only after a concerted attack on Congress and the courts by the Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic organization in the nation.

I was only fifteen at the time, a fresh man at Far Rockaway High School at a time when the majority of students at that school were Jewish.

The major organization at the school was the American Zionist Association (AZA). The second A might have stood for something else. You tend to forget things such as that after nearly 50 years.

In any case, I can't forget when the change was made. Our school's principal, Monica D. Ryan, came around to classes to tell us that we were adding those words to the daily pledge and we had an assembly program to tell us why.

Ryan proudly told us of the Knight's determination to bring God back into the schools and her delight over the success of the Catholic organization and "her church" in winning the victory.

The Jewish students looked at each other. We knew then that the God that she was speaking about, the one who had come back into the schools, was not our God, but a Catholic God.

I certainly was no Constitutional scho lar in high school, but I knew enough to know that the Constitution did not call for the "establishment of religion," and that was exactly what the new words in the pledge of allegiance were doing - establishing the Catholic God as the school's God as well.

When President Eisenhower signed the change into law, he did so by saying, "In this way, we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future." We might not have known what the word transcendence meant," but we got the gist of the statement.

When I said the pledge each day, I was a little uncomfortable about the reference to God, not being very at tuned to the concept. Though I would never think of not saying the words for fear of being ostracized by my fellow students, I remember being vaguely aware that there was something wrong in America if one could be coerced to say words that he or she did not believe in.

Later, in the Navy, I was assigned to an aircraft carrier. On that carrier there were two chaplains for the ship's company. One was Catholic, the other Protestant.

Each morning and each evening, one or the other said a prayer over the ship's IMC system - the loudspeaker. The prayers, as you can imagine, were high on praising Jesus for one thing or another. Now, I have nothing against Catholics or Protestants, but even as unreligious as I was at that time, I thought it somehow wrong that I be forced to listen to a prayer that had no relation to what I, nor many others on the ship, believed in.

When a Jewish doctor was killed when the plane he was flying in got a "cold cat" (not enough power from the ship's steam catapult) and crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, we flew in a Rabbi from France for a shipboard service. The Catholic chaplain told me that it was the first Jewish service on an American man of war in more than 100 years.

He was proud of that fact. I was not.

I felt as if I were back at Far Rock away High School, saying words that I did not believe in because I would have been sanctioned by many of my fellow students had I not said them.

That is what is wrong with those who say today, "nobody is forced to say the pledge."

Well, after 33 years of teaching, I will tell you that a student would have to be pretty tough to stand up to the group and refuse to say the pledge. That is not going to happen. Students will suffer in silence just as I did in high school and on the carrier.

It is wrong to force them to do so.

The fact is, the words "Under God" should never have been placed in the Pledge of Allegiance in the first place. The Knights of Columbus were too powerful a force at a time when Amer ica was going through our "Happy Days" period. Had they tried it today, or any other time in history, the idea of adding those words would have been rejected out of hand.

I think that what we have to do is reform the pledge once again. It certainly is not a sacrosanct document, having been changed a number of times already.

I think that a pledge is good. I think that democracy is good. I think that patriotism is good.

I think that a pledge that forces any person to say words that he or she does not believe in is bad.

The court is right. We need to take the words "Under God" out of the pledge of Allegiance.

The case is presently being heard by The U.S. Supreme Court. Justice An tonin Scalia commented publicly on the case and has recused himself from the decision, leaving eight votes on the court. A 4-4 vote would leave standing the lower court decision that the inclusion of the words "Under God" are un constitutional and must be removed. There are those who argue that history demands that the words be left in, but the history of "Under God" in the pledge go back only fifty years, hardly a tradition. Did religion play a part in our history, in the development of our nation? Of course it did. One only has to look at the Pilgrims or at the other groups who came to the New World seeking religious freedom. That is precisely the point. Religious freedom demands separation between church and state and that demands that the words "Under God" be removed from the pledge. I can only hope that the strict constructionists on the court take a look at why the First Amendment was written in the first place and act accordingly.


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