Fight for the Pledge of Allegiance
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JIM LEHRER: Two views of this controversy now. Barry Lynn is president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He’s an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Jay Sekulow is chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is affiliated with the Christian Coalition.
Barry Lynn, did the appeals court ruling get it right, in your opinion?
REV. BARRY LYNN: I think it did because it made it clear that, in 1954, when the Congress of the United States changed the original pledge, one written by a minister, but which did not contain the word “God,” turned it in 1954 into not just a political statement, an affirmation of patriotism, but also now turned it into a religious affirmation. Congress, at a minimum, shouldn’t be making decisions about what God Americans should believe in or which number of Gods we should believe in. They should strictly keep their hands out of the religion-deciding business.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
REV. BARRY LYNN: Because I think the central core of the establishment clause is this: That government, can government agencies, branches of government should not make decisions about one topic and one topic alone: Religion. That should be left entirely to the religious institutions and the conscience of individual Americans. So I think the court, although it’s taken a long time to get here, yesterday those two judges looked hard at the issue and said if we really don’t want Congress making laws about religion, they should not, in 1954, have turned a political affirmation into a religious creedal statement.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Sekulow, I mispronounced your name a moments ago. My apologies.
JAY SEKULOW: No problem.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Sekulow, you disagree what the court did.
JAY SEKULOW: I do.
JIM LEHRER: Explain your position.
JAY SEKULOW: That’s quite all right. I think the ninth circuit really got it wrong here and I think ultimately they’re going to be overturned and sooner rather than later. I think that what the Pledge of Allegiance did in 1954 is what our founders did when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and said we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. There was a recognition of God. It wasn’t a statement of denominationalism. It was just a recognition of God’s providence in the foundation of the country.
I think in that sense, the Pledge of Allegiance, like when the Supreme Court starts its session, God save the United States and this honorable court is part of this ceremonial deism that has been around since the very founding of our country. Where I disagree with the court and where I disagree with my good friend Barry Lynn is that the fact is if you take this argument to its natural conclusion, then our national motto “in God we trust” is removed next, which may be okay for some the ninth circuit, but I think for the rest of the country, there’s going to be pretty serious opposition.
JIM LEHRER: How would you respond to Mr. Lynn’s point, how would you respond to Mr. Lynn’s point that this is something that Congress is prohibited from even getting into, in other words, anything religious, Congress must stay away from, because of the Constitution?
JAY SEKULOW: But Congress isn’t allowed to make statements like this. I take a very different view of the way the establishment clause is supposed to operate. I think this kind of accommodation, if you will, no one’s forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s part of our constitutional history.
I mean there’s a series of Supreme Court cases, in fact the U.S. Supreme Court eight times has made reference to the Pledge of Allegiance and “the one nation under God” statement and has never found it to be a constitutional infirmity or difficulty. This ninth circuit opinion, I think, is wrong constitutionally, flawed legally and either it’s going to be decided by the entire ninth circuit court of appeals or the end result may be the U.S. Supreme Court. And either way, I think the case is reversed.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Lynn, first of all, do you agree that it’s probably going to be reversed, that this is a one-night stand on this story?
REV. BARRY LYNN: Well, I’m not really sure about that, although I would not bet the ranch that the current Supreme Court would in fact uphold this ruling. But I think the ninth circuit may well, when all of its 11 members go, will maintain the same position because of the terribly well-reasoned opinion. In fact, it goes through settled law on issues like prayer in school. In prayer in school cases from the 1960s, the court said, and I think many Americans agree with this, that if you are in the same classroom as a group of other people who are praying to a specific God, that if you did not believe in that God or you have a different set of religious ideas, you should not be forced to either stay in the room and essentially participate in that exercise, or leave the classroom every day and be subject to the ridicule or, or worse, of your peers. This is a natural extension.
If the Pledge of Allegiance has been turned effectively into a religious statement of faith, as it was in 1954, then a person who doesn’t believe it, religious or otherwise– this is not just about atheism versus good Christianity. It’s about whether people believe that this is a public pronouncement that ought to be made– it’s just as much making you feel like an outsider, if it’s the Pledge of Allegiance than if it’s a prayer selected by the majority.
JIM LEHRER: You disagree with that, Mr. Sekulow?
JAY SEKULOW: I do. A couple of points. Number one, I think it’s important to note at the outset, no one is compelled to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. If someone objects to it, they cannot be participating and they have a perfect right to do that. The Supreme Court has recognized that.
JIM LEHRER: What about Mr. Lynn’s point that if you’re just standing there, you’re put in a position of being kind of ostracized?
JAY SEKULOW: Yeah, but isn’t the price of freedom, the fact that in public life, whether it’s at the school or in the Supreme Court or in the halls of Congress, you’re going to hear things you may disagree with — and the fact of the matter is to take what Mr. Lynn is saying, what Barry is saying to its logical conclusion, then our national motto, “in God we trust” needs to go as well because you would perceive there to be an establishment clause.
I think that what you have here is a situation where this court, out of sync with every other court in the country, and particularly these two judges — we shouldn’t blame the whole ninth circuit yet until we see what the final decision from the ninth circuit is when it’s served by the full 11 judges – but I think these two judges are clearly wrong; they got it wrong constitutionally. The Constitution does allow for a religious acknowledgment. After all, it was Justice Douglas who said that our very institutions presuppose the existence of a Supreme Being.
JIM LEHRER: Barry Lynn, let me ask you about the point now that Mr. Sekulow’s made more than once now, that is… and also the dissenter, the one judge, Judge Fernandes, dissented down this road, God we Trust goes — it goes off the money, it goes off all these other things. Do you think that’s where it should go?
REV. BARRY LYNN: I don’t think it takes it out of in “America the beautiful,” which I don’t think mentions God. It certainly doesn’t mean we change the declaration of independence, maybe God on the money, maybe you could make the argument. But I think here we’re talking about something of central importance. The Pledge of Allegiance is the one and only national affirmation that is supposed to unify all of us here in the United States as patriotic Americans. I think it’s far more significant than a couple of words, even important words, etched into the coins.
I do disagree with Jay fundamentally about one thing. What is the price of freedom? I think sometimes the price of freedom is that we recognize that we in the majority have to use our own agencies and organizations and institutions to promote our religious faith because if we force or allow government to help religion, in fact, it will violate the conscience of the minority. And sometimes freedom means the church has to do it on its own. Religion has to thrive on its own, not with the help of government, not by its specific inclusion in our national Pledge of Allegiance.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Sekulow?
JAY SEKULOW: Well, I’ll tell you this, I… what Barry said at the end really in answer to your question, is “in God we trust” there’s a national motto under his theory of the Constitution would go. I think, again, you look at the history of the country, to the history of the Declaration of Independence, we shouldn’t start exercising our documents. Under Barry’s theory of the case, the Declaration of Independence shouldn’t be posted in the classroom either, certainly not our national motto “in God we trust.” I think it’s a recognition of who we are as the American people. You don’t have to participate, you don’t even have to agree, but I think that kind of acknowledgment is appropriate. I think it’s legal.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Lynn, how do you interpret this overwhelming negative response to this? Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, big votes to zip, the President, everybody has come down against this ruling.
REV. BARRY LYNN: Well, I think there’s two ways to look at this. First of all, I think in the public opinion polls, they’re now starting to go run between 25 percent and 35 percent of Americans who actually believe the court was right. Congress uniformly seems to think they were wrong. I think the one-word difference may be “elections.” The American people can take a sober look at this, look at the principles of our country.
A lot of members of Congress happened to show up today to pledge allegiance and be on national television. They were the same people who yesterday could have gone voluntarily and pledged allegiance, but they didn’t go. I’m afraid we’re seeing a little bit of– a lot frankly– of political grandstanding as we so frequently and sadly do when politicians mix religion and politics very close to a national election.
JIM LEHRER: Is that what this is about, Mr. Sekulow?
JAY SEKULOW: I don’t think so. I think the reason is politicizing the fact that the ninth circuit court of appeals made the decision yesterday, and I think they were in once sense an equal opportunity offender. They offended conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats and independents. They offended the American people. I think the American people, even under Barry Lynn’s theory, 70 percent of the people think the 9th Circuit’s wrong, but ultimately, at the end of the day, I think the Supreme Court is going to make that same conclusion.
JIM LEHRER: This an important issue, or is it? Is it important?
JAY SEKULOW: I think it is important. It’s important to let the court stand and also understand what the courts failed to understand, the idea that you start removing mention of “God” or faith from public life or government would be a tragic mistake in light of our constitutional history. No one’s mandating the denomination here. No one’s mandating belief. It’s simply a tacit acknowledge of what they call, the court has called ceremonial deism, and I think to remove that would be tragic.
JIM LEHRER: Is this important?
REV. BARRY LYNN: It’s very important legally and religiously. Whenever you mention the name of God, I think they… it is an important statement. It’s not a ceremonial act. It’s an important religious affirmation. This is an important case, and I’m terribly sorry that one of the clearest images out of this case that we’ve seen all day on national television are death threats brought against the man who brought this case in California. In America, we ought to settle our differences in the court, maybe Jay will win as he did with vouchers today. I lost. But the point is that that’s the way we settle our differences. We don’t threaten our neighbors. That’s the kind of rules, non- rule of law that we’ve seen in so many countries that have now been identified as our greatest enemies.
JIM LEHRER: We have to leave it there.
JAY SEKULOW: On that we can agree.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.