I am a humanist. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic divine presence that created or controls my life. I believe that I can live my life ethically and morally without any ‘divine’ guidance.
Like religionists, (and to quote from dissenting Judge Fernandez in the 9th Circuit’s Pledge of Allegiance case) I also feel ‘awe at the immenseness of the universe and our own small place within it, as well as the wonder we must feel at the good fortune of our country.’ But unlike Judge Fernandez, my ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ are combined with rationality. I do not conclude that God or the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny are the cause of our country’s good fortune.
When the words ‘under God’ were added to our Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, I
continued to be proud to pledge allegiance to my flag and my country. I cannot, however, be honest if I pledge allegiance to a nation ‘under God.’ The United States is not a theocracy. We are not a nation under God. I will not pledge allegiance to a theocracy.
For the past 48 years, I have been pledging allegiance to ‘one nation under the Constitution’ and I will continue to do so regardless of the ultimate judicial disposition of the pledge case. I am not coerced by the strange looks of those around me when I recite the pledge. I am secure in my patriotic feelings about this country and am not intimidated by those deluded individuals who assert that I cannot be patriotic without a belief in their God. But I am not a second grade student undergoing subtle coercive pressure from peers when I am forced to participate or protest an oath I would be dishonest in uttering.
I ask the God-believers how they would feel if their tax dollars were used to endorse a ‘prayer’ which pledged allegiance to ‘one nation which does not believe in God.’ How would they feel if their children were subjected to such a prayer each day in school? Of course that could not happen because our Constitution prohibits such words — just as it prohibits the words, ‘under God.’
In the past few days, I have frequently heard that references to God in public places are appropriate because a majority of our country believes in God. Does that mean we can ignore the 14 percent — or 30 million Americans — who do not profess a belief in God?
In the 1943 Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. Barnette (involving the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to not pledge allegiance to the flag), Justice Jackson stated that the very purpose of the Bill of Rights was to place certain subjects beyond the reach of majorities. He said, ‘One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights, may not be submitted to
vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.’
The decision of June 26  will not have any major impact on my life. Nevertheless, it is an important decision. It may stop one small intrusion of religion into my life. James Madison noted that the refusal of the Bostonians to pay a three cents a pound tax on tea was a minor amount. But he wrote, ‘The people of the United states owe their independence and their liberty to the wisdom of discerning in the minute tax … the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent.’
In the Pledge case decision, Judge Alfred Goodwin noted that ‘the purpose of the 1954 Act (adding ‘under God’ to the pledge) was to take a position on the question of theism, namely to support the existence and moral authority of God while denying Atheistic concepts. Such a purpose runs counter to the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government’s endorsement or advancement not only of one particular religion at the expense of other religions, but also of religion at the expense of atheism … Forestalling intolerance extends beyond intolerance among Christian sects — or even intolerance among religions — to encompass intolerance of the disbeliever and the uncertain.’
The comments and responses of our elected officials and others to Judge Goodwin’s courageous decision raise serious concerns for me. Am I really safe in this country from discrimination and abuse because of my minority beliefs?
Webster’s defines ‘theocracy’ as ‘a state governed by divine guidance.’ When President Eisenhower signed the bill adding ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance, he said, ‘From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town-every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.’
I guess we are a theocracy and will remain so until we get more courageous court decisions.
[Editor’s note: Originally published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 7, 2002, Mel Lipman’s commentary remains timely, given the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, the majority ruling that taxpayers lack legal standing to challenge executive branch expenditures for faith-based initiatives programs. Lipman’s article refers to Michael Newdow’s case regarding”The Pledge of Allegiance” argued before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals of Eastern California in March of 2002. That court returned in favor of Newdow, with partial concurrence and partial dissent by Judge Fernandez who commented that “such phrases as ‘In God We Trust’ or ‘under God’ have no tendency to establish religion in this country or to suppress anyone’s exercise, or non-exercise, of religion, except in the fevered eyes of persons who most fervently would like to drive all tincture of religion out of the public life of our polity.” Newdow’s case, when it reached the Supreme Court, was dismissed, also on the basis of lack of legal standing. Newdow was found not able to speak for his daughter, due to custody issues. Many media outlets and commentators noted that this decision simply “sidestepped” broader questions regarding the separation of Church and State.]