July 2002 -- A California court's recent subtraction of "one nation, under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance distorts the ethical foundation of church and state separation. Yes, individual rights require safeguards against intrusive government, but the court's striking of a simple utterance begs the question…which rights are being safeguarded? And for whose benefit?

The court decision, and the attitude that enabled it, is antithetical to an environment in which individual rights truly flourish. On the surface, the decision appears to be a victory against compulsory recitation of the Pledge (or a phrase therein). Genuine affection for the Pledge's sentiments must be chosen; forced recitation makes it a meaningless rite. In this regard, the court would have been morally justified in affirming that the Pledge should be voluntary. However, striking phrases from the Pledge, as an attempt to dispel certain ideas from the public domain, minimizes the role of individual learning and choice.

Most school-age children cannot critically examine the context of the Pledge of Allegiance at an adult level. Critics of "one nation, under God" may point to this youthful naiveté in their claims that potentially offensive language ought to be removed from schools. But the world-at-large does not operate that way. Individuals cannot evade the spectrum of ideas. Learning requires a proximity to ideas - even those that may offend - starting in childhood.

A respect for rights requires an enlightened understanding of human nature, of the human capacity for knowledge and freewill. Freedoms of speech and thought are invaluable tools in this enlightenment. Individuals are free to include or disregard God, but the integrity of any conviction demands a certain tolerance for peaceful opposition. After-school prayer groups and "one nation, under God" function by the voluntary involvement of those who subscribe to that view. Neither the groups nor the phrase compel faith, anymore than basketball teams, chess clubs, or cheerleading squads compel participation.

People underestimate the autonomy of their convictions when they presume that the mere presence of belief in schools equals state-sponsored indoctrination. Constitutional protections exist in part to enable a diversity of speech and action. Unfortunately, in this context the establishment clause has been mustered to duty as an ideological muffler.

The Constitution's establishment clause was born, not to eliminate the presence of religion in public settings, but to protect from government-mandated adherence to it. Few Americans alive (if any) have had to endure the degree of religion-inspired cruelty that spawned that Constitutional shelter. Modern-day, would-be Galileos position themselves in gallows of their own construction. They have all the freedom necessary to debate the propriety of "one nation under God", without fear of violent reprisal. And yet, they employ courts and a zero-tolerance attitude toward religious utterances in schools -- melodramatic and intellectually shortsighted methods of debate. Such an approach transforms the simplicity of the establishment clause into a weapon of the thought police.

America blossomed from reasoning minds and a tolerance for debate, characteristics that make it a safe-haven for dissidents today. The Pledge's ode to liberty and justice rings true with or without God. Mankind is capable of establishing and securing rights in a secular, of-this-Earth moral context. Let the debate rage. It is healthy for society.

Shall we permit "One nation, under God?" The responsibility of that choice lies with the individual, not the court.

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