The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)
Freedom of Religion
Did the U.S. Supreme Court strike down the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools?
No. The Court dismissed a lawsuit, finding that the individual who challenged the Pledge, Michael Newdow, did not have standing because he was not the custodial parent of his child. In addition, the Court did not rule that the inclusion of the words “under God” amounted to a church-state violation.
Newdow had claimed that the Pledge violated the Establishment Clause because the Pledge contains the words “under God.” The Pledge was created in 1892 but amended in 1954 with the words “under God” to distinguish our country from the “Godless Communists.” Newdow claimed that this language promoted or endorsed religion. The school countered that the Pledge over time had acquired a secular meaning and was primarily a patriotic, not religious, exercise.
The Court did make a ruling in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004), which dealt with Newdow’s claim that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional. A divided three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the Pledge was unconstitutional. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, though it did not address the underlying First Amendment issue. Instead, the Court decided that Newdow did not have standing to file the lawsuit because he was not the primary custodial parent of his daughter. Though the Court did not reach the Establishment Clause issue, John Paul Stevens’s majority opinion seemed to cast doubt on Newdow’s argument. For example, Stevens referred to the Pledge as a “patriotic exercise designed to foster national unity” as opposed to a religious ceremony. It also seemed ironic to at least some Court observers that the Court issued the Newdow decision on June 14—Flag Day.