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Justice Department asks high court to reverse Pledge of Allegiance ruling

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States Justice Department has urged the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that declared the Pledge of Allegiance a violation of church-state separation.

In its petition, the Justice Department asked the justices to review the federal appeals court decision and to strike it down. Reciting the pledge does not violate the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion, the department argued.

“Whatever else the establishment clause may prohibit, this court’s precedents make clear that it does not forbid the government from officially acknowledging the religious heritage, foundation and character of this nation,” the petition said. “That is what the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance does.”

Because the appeals court’s opinion is so “manifestly contrary to precedent,” the justices may desire to reverse the ruling without oral arguments, the petition said.

In an April 30 statement released on the same day as the petition, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, “As the court has ruled again and again, our government and people can acknowledge the important role religion has played in America’s foundation, history and character. The Justice Department will vigorously defend our nation’s heritage and our children’s ability to recite the pledge.”

If it decides to review the decision, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case in the next term, which begins in October.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a revised opinion in February in which it affirmed last summer’s decision that the pledge’s inclusion of “under God” violates the establishment clause. The Ninth Circuit Court, which is located in San Francisco, announced at that time it would not rehear the case as an 11-member panel, as had been requested.

The divided three-judge panel issued an amended opinion that basically maintained the central holding in the case but tightened its scope. The revised decision did not strike down a 1954 federal law adding “under God” to the pledge, as its June ruling had. Instead, the amended opinion banned classroom recitations of the pledge.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the decision underscored the Ninth Circuit’s “well-earned reputation as the most liberal federal court in America, as well as the most hostile to religious expression in public venues.”

In early March, the court delayed enforcement of the opinion for 90 days.

The Ninth Circuit panel’s June decision immediately ignited a firestorm of criticism — and not just from religious conservatives. The panel quickly stayed enforcement of the ruling. The Senate promptly approved a resolution affirming the pledge by a 99-0 vote. In early October, the House of Representatives passed a similar measure by a 401-5 vote.

In addition to California, the states affected by the decision are Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

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