The Pledge of Allegiance Cases

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What does the phrase “under God” mean?

That deceptively simple question goes to the heart of every State and Federal assault brought against the voluntary recitation of America’s Pledge of Allegiance by hypersecularist litigants. Pledge opponents incorrectly suggest that “under God” conveys, primarily, a theological conviction. It does not. Instead, historic references to “God,” “Creator,” “Author,” and “Nature’s God” are references to critical assumptions that undergird America’s political philosophy and religious heritage.

For over a decade, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has successfully demonstrated that the phrase “under God” expresses a political philosophy that grounds the human dignity and fundamental rights of every American in an authority higher than the State. As the Becket Fund’s Founder Seamus Hasson explained, challenging the Pledge is “about a lot more than just how school kids start their day. It’s about where the next generation thinks its rights come from—the Creator or the State.”

In order to assess the Pledge’s philosophical import, consider its historical context. Congress first adopted the Pledge in 1942 to immortalize the patriotism on bold display during World War II. By 1954, the United States was deep into the Cold War, and Congress added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in order to emphasize the American vision of human rights in contrast to the U.S.S.R, which claimed that the government itself was the source of rights for its citizens.

Still, in 1954, Congress was not writing on a blank slate. America’s history is replete with references to “God” and “Creator.” Consider:

  • Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863): “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
  • Washington’s General Orders to his troops (July 2, 1776): “The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army”.
  • The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Even the United States Constitution, which does not directly mention God, takes sharp exception to the Soviet theory that all legitimate rights are conferred, and consequently regulated, by the State. The Preamble unequivocally aims to “secure the Blessings of Liberty,” not create them. Placing human rights under the authority of the Law of Nature, of which, in Cicero’s words, “God himself is [the] author,” protects every citizen by limiting the power of government. The phrase “under God” has historically safeguarded the human dignity of the oppressed. In fact, both the abolitionist movement and, more recently, the civil rights struggle were premised on the idea that all Americans possess rights bestowed by a creator, and that the Government, even the Constitution of the United States, had no right to disregard those rights. For example, consider the use of the argument in these historical moments:

  • The Statement read at the opening ceremony of the nation’s first abolitionist society, which Alexander Hamilton helped found in 1785, declared: “The benevolent creator and father of men, having given to them (slaves) all an equal right to life, liberty, and property, no sovereign power on earth can justly deprive them of either.”
  • Chief Justice Salmon P. Chasedefended, in a Supreme Court case, a man charged with helping slaves escape by arguing that “[t]he law of the Creator, which invests every human being with an inalienable title to freedom, cannot be repealed by any interior law which asserts that man is property.”
  • Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have A Dream (August 28, 1963): “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

By using the word “God” to invoke a natural rights philosophy, American leaders from George Washington to John F. Kennedy, from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King, Jr., have joined arms to declare that no State may justly repress the freedoms naturally possessed by the human soul. This philosophy is not premised upon religious revelation, but upon the existence of a power known through reason, a power higher than the State. Attempts to alter the Pledge are nothing more than thinly veiled crusades that aim to purge the word “God” from public life. To avoid saying the “offensive” word “God,” teachers would have to remain silent about the natural law underpinnings of the American Revolution, the Constitution, abolitionism, and the civil rights movement. References to “God,” which remind every American that their rights cannot be seized by the State, are the cherished legacy of a free society; they strum, as Abraham Lincoln might say, our nation’s “mystic chords of memory.” That’s precisely the conclusion President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to when on Flag Day, June 14, 1954, he signed the resolution to amend the Pledge of Allegiance to henceforth include the words “under God”:

These words will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded.

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To learn more about the Becket Fund’s defense of our nation’s Pledge, explore our case summaries below.

Past Pledge Cases: 

For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Emily Hardman, Communications Director, at ehardman@becketfund.org or call 202.349.7224.