I don't usually talk about mainstream political issues of the day in my journal, but today's Supreme Court decision not to actually decide about whether having the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment fills me with a need to vent.
It strikes me that when the courts are asked to decide about a specific controversy between two parties, the question of standing is very relevant, and if the person bringing a complaint doesn't have the legal right to stick his nose in, the courts should definitely say so and say nothing more about the case. But when the actual controversy is about a principle which affects many people, standing is not important at all. For the Court to hide behind a technicality when there is an important issue on the table smacks of simple cowardice. When society has a question about how the Constitution is to be applied, it is the job of the Supreme Court and no one else (short of the country being sufficiently united to amend the Constitution). By agreeing to hear the case in the first place, the Court affirmed that there was an important question that needed to be answered, and Michael Newdow's relationship with his daughter is obviously not the question that we the people have on our minds. The fact that the case was argued before the Court raised the importance of the issue in everyone's minds, and made a clear answer all the more urgent. For the Court to now hide behind a technicality, to use the excuse of Mr. Newdow's questionable standing to refuse to answer a question that they themselves helped raise to prominence, is to fall down on the job.
The question of whether "under God" in the Pledge is Constitutional is significant to me. Like most American children, I was taught the words by rote in first grade, or possibly kindergarten, and even though I had a far better vocabulary when I was 6 than most kids my age, I didn't understand what a lot of the individual words meant, much less what the whole Pledge meant. It was words that we memorized and said, and it certainly didn't seem in any way optional in 1970. Years later, when I actually parsed the words and thought about what I'd said all those times, I thought it was bizarre and maybe not really right that we were taught to say words promising things that we didn't understand, but I was firmly enough convinced that the United States was a good country that it wasn't something to be upset about. I remember thinking that the words "under God" were out of place, but I assumed that it was a historical anomaly, that the words of the Pledge went back to the founding of the country and were left unchanged out of respect for history even though it seemed obvious that they were not actually appropriate for the current times. I was amazed and horrified to learn that "under God" had been inserted so recently that they weren't part of the Pledge my mother learned. I can't say exactly when that was -- I was probably in high school -- but it planted what may have been the first seed of distrust of religion in politics in my mind. It was so blatantly obvious that adding those words violated the First Amendment that I had to question the principles I believed the country ran on. I don't mean I did a lot of conscious soul searching then, but I think that violation was an early part of why I trust our political system so little today.
I was disappointed and disillusioned that the Court failed to strike down the words "under God", but it seems to me that the people on the other side of the issue should be disappointed and disillusioned that the Court failed to actually affirm that such words were in fact proper. Now we have to wait until another person brave enough to face death threats and a great outpouring of hatred from the intolerant followers of a guy who told us to be nice to each other 2000 years ago comes along before we can see this important question actually decided. Shame on you all, Justices Rehnquist, Kennedy, Ginsberg, O'Connor, Thomas, Souter, Breyer, and Stevens.