What's the argument that the Pledge and "In God We Trust" are Constitutionally okay?

I’ve been mystified by this since I was a kid.

It appears obvious to me that for government entities to proclaim that they trust in God, and for the Pledge (officially sanctioned by the government) to declare the nation is “under God,” is for the government to espouse religious belief. And it seems only slightly less obvious to me that for the government to espouse religious beliefs violates the constitution.

Where does that (admittedly very broad) reasoning fail, though?

I read a short news article this morning that summarized a recent SCOTUS opinion as saying the pledge is “patriotic, and not religious.” How can the pledge–which says we are “one nation under god”, not be religious?

What’s the argument here?

The legal term is ceremonial deism, and it pretty much means “everybody does it, so it’s no big deal.” I think Constitutionally the pledge doesn’t qualify as ceremonial deism - meaning it fails what is called the Lemon Test, which is supposed to determine whether or not a practice is (in this case) advancing religion. For example, the fact that the “under God” was inserted into the pledge long after it was written as a response to the Soviet Union, was promoted by a reverend, and the fact that Eisenhower had a priest present when he signed the law adding the words to the pledge, indicate to me that the words are there to advance religion.

The full quote, I think some joker once said - was that American money says “in God we trust - all others pay cash.”

And, in that context, not just religion but a particular religion which seems to violate the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” phrase in the First Amendment.

This has never made any sense to me at all.

Think about what the phrase from the Pledge was prior to the change:

…[o]ne nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

then you add ‘under God’ and you COMPLETELY violate the original meaning.

…[o]ne nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

How can a nation be indivisible if some people think the nation is ‘under God’ and some do not?

At the time, most people probably thought the latter were not “real Americans”. I’m sure many still do today, but it would have been a significant majority during the 50s (IMHO).

Same here. I’ve heard the “explanation”, but come on. . .

The argument that it’s constitutional is that it doesn’t really mean anything. That is, of course, not what Congress could have thought when they added those words.

The Pledge of Allegiance, as adopted by Congress. is the ‘official’ phrasing of commonly held and laudable sentiments which the U.S. government wishes to affirm and support. It is a voluntary affirmation of one’s allegiance to the United States of America, to the ideals it stands for, and to the flag which symbolizes it and them.

As such, it differs not a whit from Congress recognizing March 15 as “National Read the Straight Dope Day” or the month of June as “Eat More Cottage Cheese Month.”

It is when state and local governments, school boards, and the like begin enforcing it as mandatory that it falls afoul of the First and Fourteenth Amendments – as was made clear by the Supreme Ciyrt a few months before Pearl Harbor.

There are certain sentiments we as a nation corporately adhere to. Among them is the freedom to believe and speak as we choose. The Pledge embodies those sentiments, and as such is appropriately recognized by the government as a standard expression of them. But when its use is mandatory or coerced, it violates the very principles it is written to enshrine.

“Cerimonial deism” is sort of a fig-leaf argument. It allows the SCOTUS to sanction a certain amount of mixing between government and religion.

One interpretation of the 1st amendment would be that “establishing” a religion means the literal establishment of a state religion as was common (and still is, in some cases) in European countries. Tax dollars go to support the state sponsored religion.

Now, that interpretation was thrown out the window a long time ago. We pretend to have a “wall of separation” between Church and State, but most gov’t officials (in all of the branches) don’t have the balls to fully back that stance.

Including the freedom to choose polytheism or atheism or agnosticism or probably some other things too.

Not in its amended form, it doesn’t.

Right. It allows them to avoid making a decision that is legally obvious but would be very unpopular. We saw another example of this in the Michael Newdow case a few years ago where they ruled on his standing in bringing the lawsuit - they said he lacked standing because he’s a non-custodial parent - rather than ruling on the pledge itself. Last I knew, he’d brought the same exact lawsuit again, on behalf of a few couples so standing would not be an issue. I assume that’s making its way through the court system now.

They’ve been some attempts to get the laws establishing the motto examined by the Supreme Court, which has always rejected such cases. One of the legal challenges in 1970 was dismissed on these grounds:

They did review it a couple of years ago. But like I said, they ducked the core issue. It may come before them again in a few years.


Newdow et al vs. Rio Linda Union School District. (PDF).

That’s the case I suspect the OP is thinking of. It’s the Ninth Circuit, not the Supreme Court, but it’s in the news because the opinion was just released.

It is. In fact the 9th circuit appeals panel just ruled Thursday that the pledge is constitutional.


If it truly is “ceremonial deism” that has no real religious significance, why do so many religious people freak out whenever there’s talk about removing it?

First, you’ll have to tell us why you hate America.

Ceremonial deism is an obvious load of crap. However, it is crap that defends something that is very popular and would be political suicide to stridently oppose, so those who put agenda before law are allowed to treat the crap as though it was good law.

I imagine because of fearing the precedent: if non-religious, utterly ceremonial mentions of God are found to violate the Establishment Clause, then hostility towards religion must be quite high and may lead to substantive undesirable results.

I suppose that’s appropriate for a fiat currency.