RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court yesterday upheld a Virginia law requiring public schools to lead a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Edward Myers of Sterling, a father of three, claimed that the reference to “one nation under God” in the pledge was an unconstitutional promotion of religion.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that the pledge is a patriotic exercise, not an affirmation of religion similar to a prayer.
“Undoubtedly, the pledge contains a religious phrase, and it is demeaning to persons of any faith to assert that the words ‘under God’ contain no religious significance,” Judge Karen Williams wrote for the panel in Myers v. Loudoun County Public Schools. “The inclusion of those two words, however, does not alter the nature of the pledge as a patriotic activity.”
Myers and his attorney, David Remes, said they had not yet discussed whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If I don’t move forward, what’s my other choice? Withdraw from public school?” Myers said in a telephone interview.
Remes said the appeals court had failed to examine the effect of the pledge on children in a school setting.
“The problem is that young schoolchildren are quite likely to view the pledge as affirming the existence of God and national subordination to God,” Remes said. “The reference to God is one of the few things in the pledge that children understand.”
Myers belongs to the Anabaptist Mennonite faith, a Christian sect opposed to the mingling of church and state. He challenged the pledge law because of that belief and his fear that Loudoun County public schools were indoctrinating his sons with a “God and country” world view.
“The combination of God and country approaches a civic religion that is in competition with my religion,” Myers said.
Two of Myers’ sons, ages 11 and 9, attend public schools. Their teachers know that he has instructed them to sit quietly while their classmates recite the pledge, Myers said, but several times a year a substitute teacher or other school official will compel them to participate.
“It’s a difficult problem for them because I want them to respect their teachers, but at the same time they have to respect my religious beliefs,” Myers said.
Attorney General Judith Williams Jagdmann said in a statement that the appeals court’s decision reaffirmed the General Assembly’s authority to direct the patriotic education of Virginia children.
Quoting from Williams’ opinion, Jagdmann said she was pleased that the court recognized that “acknowledgments of religion by government simply do not threaten to establish religion.”
Williams wrote that history is replete with government acknowledgment of God, from the Declaration of Independence to the current practice of opening U.S. Supreme Court sessions with the phrase “God save the United States and this honorable court.”
Victoria Cobb, state spokeswoman for the conservative Family Foundation, praised the court for ruling that “simply recognizing that our nation was founded under the watchful eye of God does not violate the principles articulated by the founding fathers in the First Amendment.”
Three years ago, a federal appeals court in California sided with another father who had argued that requiring the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools was unconstitutional. However, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed that case, Elk Grove Unified School Dist. v. Newdow, last year, saying atheist Michael Newdow lacked standing to sue on behalf of his young daughter because he didn’t have custody of her.
Newdow, an atheist, has since filed suit against four Sacramento-area school districts on behalf several atheist children and their families.
In yesterday’s ruling, Williams noted that while the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the Newdow case, some justices indicated — as they have in other establishment of religion cases — that they believed the pledge mandate was constitutional.
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote in a concurring opinion that those comments alone were enough to uphold the Virginia law, while Judge Allyson Duncan wrote separately that the historical references in Williams’s opinion were unnecessary.
Myers also originally challenged Virginia’s requirement that public schools prominently display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” but that portion of the lawsuit was dropped on appeal. (See case documents.)
“The pledge policy seemed to us a stronger case because it not only involves government endorsement of religion, but religious indoctrination by surrounding a child with others who are reciting this oath and creating enormous peer pressure on the child,” Remes said.