Justice Department to fight to keep Pledge in public schools

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says the Justice Department will fight to overturn a federal court ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance can’t be recited in public schools because it contains a reference to God.

Gonzales says the pledge is one of several expressions of national identity and patriotism that mention God but don’t violate the Constitution’s ban on state-sponsored religion.

The high court “has affirmed time and again that such official acknowledgments of our nation’s religious heritage, foundation and character are constitutional,” Gonzales said in a statement yesterday, a day after the ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in San Francisco.

Karlton’s decision in Newdow v. Congress could put the issue on track for another round of Supreme Court arguments. The Court sidestepped the issue last year, ruling in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow that atheist Michael Newdow had no standing to bring the case on behalf of his daughter because he did not have custody of her.

The Bush administration had opposed Newdow on the same basis that Gonzales set forth yesterday. Newdow also is involved in the latest case, acting as attorney for three parents challenging the pledge because it includes the words “under God.”

Gonzales is widely viewed as a leading contender for retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s seat on the Supreme Court because he is close to President George W. Bush. Gonzales’ statement of support to keep “under God” in the pledge could appeal to religious conservatives, who have expressed concerns about him as a potential justice because he has not stated opposition to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

The Becket Fund, a religious rights group that is a party to the pledge case, said it would appeal to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held the ‘under God’ provision of the pledge unconstitutional in 2002.

The decisions by Karlton and the appeals court conflict with an August opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. That court upheld a Virginia law requiring public schools to lead daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, similar to the requirement in California.

Meanwhile, the Senate voted late yesterday to condemn the district judge’s ruling.

The nonbinding resolution (S.Res. 243), approved by unanimous consent, states that the phrase “one nation under God” in the pledge reflects the religious faith central to the founding of the nation and that its recitation is “a fully constitutional expression of patriotism.”

The House and Senate approved similar resolutions in 2002 in response to the 9th Circuit decision.

“It’s unfortunate that the Senate is once again compelled to defend the Pledge of Allegiance because of the actions of a federal court,” said Sen. Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, who introduced the resolution.