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FIRST-PERSON: Borrowing Michael Newdow’s reasoning

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Michael Newdow is an atheist. As such, he believes that God does not exist. So avid is Newdow in his practice of atheism that he appears religious. For almost two years he has been on a crusade to protect school children from being exposed to the “damaging” phrase “under God.”

On March 24, Newdow’s quest for atheistic justice reached its conclusion. The physician and lawyer from California stood before the Supreme Court of the United States and argued that The Pledge of Allegiance (with its reference to God) promotes religion, “coerces” children to join in and communicates to his daughter that his atheism is “wrong.”

The first phrase of the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” In order to prevail, Newdow must convince the Court that the phrase “under God” somehow constitutes a law advancing and/or hindering religion.

Just what particular religious view is advanced by the words “under God?” In numerous interviews Newdow was asked that very question. His response each time was “monotheism.” The phrase “under God” promotes the religious concept that there is only one god.

Since many religions are monotheistic, Newdow is hard pressed to specify which one is advanced by the phrase “under God.” Given the words were added in 1954, Newdow asserts they are intended to promote Christianity. However, in the absence of the specific mention of “Jesus” he will be hard pressed to make his case.

It would also be difficult for Newdow to argue that the founding fathers would object to the phrase “under God.” While all of those who had a hand in launching America were not Christians, their writings indicate they uniformly believed that there was a God who was the Creator and Lawgiver. They were, in a word, monotheistic.

What about Newdow’s argument that children who are exposed to the Pledge are “coerced” into participating? Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pointed out, “No child is required to say the Pledge,” as she referred to a 1943 case that held recitation of the Pledge is voluntary.

Some argue that it is asking a bit much from children to opt out of something their friends are participating in. Peer pressure is so strong, it is said, that even a voluntary pledge amounts to “psychological coercion.”

Those who assert the “coercion” argument fall strangely silent when religious parents object to certain activities on moral grounds. When a parent objects to something being taught in a public school they are told their children can simply opt out. “Coercion” then becomes irrelevant. If the Pledge is found to be “coercive,” then other school activities must come under scrutiny as well.

In seeking to establish “standing” (the right to file a lawsuit) Newdow said, “I am saying I, as her father, have a right to know that when she goes into the public schools she’s not going to be told every morning to stand up, put her hand over her heart, and say your father is wrong, which is what she’s told every morning.”

While the issue of standing is separate from the actual law suit, I find Newdow’s argument interesting. I think there are religious parents that could use his reasoning to bring lawsuits against public schools all over the country.

A Christian parent could sue a government school for exclusively teaching evolution. Echoing Newdow, the argument could be made that by promoting only the material energy-chance theory of existence a child is being told his or her parent’s belief in the biblical account of creation is wrong.

What about sex education? A parent could assert that teaching about contraception and making birth control available via a public school is insinuating the parent’s belief in abstinence is wrong.

Some state schools now instruct children — sometimes as early as kindergarten — that homosexuality is natural, normal, and healthy. A parent who believes otherwise could make the case that the school’s teaching indicates his or her moral belief is wrong.

If Michael Newdow is successful in swaying the Supreme Court that two words, “under God,” are damaging and demeaning, perhaps it is time for religious parents to borrow his arguments.

Instruction that undermines a parent’s moral beliefs is bound to be demeaning if not outright damaging. And to suggest a child simply opt out of said teaching would certainly result in psychological coercion. If Newdow’s arguments are good for the atheist goose, they must surely be good for the religious gander.
Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each Friday in Baptist Press, is pastor of Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore., in the Portland area.

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  • Kelly Boggs