'Under God,' the Pledge of Allegiance, and Other Constitutional Trivia
62 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2002
Date Written: 2003
A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit created a furor recently when it ruled that the inclusion of the words "under God" in the official Pledge of Allegiance violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Responses to this ruling by politicians, the press, and legal academics were overwhelmingly critical. The unifying theme of many of these responses is that the claim against the "under God" language in the Pledge is trivial and therefore not the proper basis for an Establishment Clause ruling. This Article uses the Pledge controversy as a vehicle for investigating the concept of constitutional trivia in the Establishment Clause context. There are two variations on the argument that the "under God" controversy is trivial. The first variation asserts that the religious component of the Pledge has so little religious significance that it does not rise to the level of an Establishment Clause violation. The second variation acknowledges the religious significance of the "under God" language, but asserts that trivial religious exercises should be considered permissible exceptions. to the normal First Amendment rules. The problem is that neither variation on the triviality defense of the Pledge can be reconciled with a plausible reading of the factual background of the Pledge statute, or with the overwhelming thrust of the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause precedents. The triviality defense of the Pledge is therefore difficult to accept at face value. This defense should be viewed instead as a distorted reflection of the growing conflict over the most basic principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence: Does the Constitution continue to mandate a secular government, or has the subtle sectarian dominance of government become an accepted constitutional fact?
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