Okay, friends and neighbors. Let’s talk a bit about the Pledge of Allegiance.
There’s another court challenge regarding the Pledge in the state of Massachusetts right now. Some atheist parents are suing the state over the recital of the Pledge in public school every morning because it contains the words “under God”, which they consider an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Naturally, as happens every time when a court case regarding the religious component of the Pledge comes up, the comments of the “Under God” supporters take two very predictable thrusts:
“If those atheists don’t like saying ‘under God’, maybe they should just move somewhere else, because something something CHRISTIAN NATION.”
“The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion! It also says ‘…nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof!’”
Every single time, the comments are a variation of those two arguments. And every time, it makes me profoundly sad and upset that so many people who otherwise proclaim their love of freedom and constitutional limits on government are not only clueless about the implications of the Establishment clause, but actively in favor of government requiring the recitation of religious affirmations (as long as it’s the majority religion, of course.)
The problem with the Pledge as it is challenged isn’t that it contains the words “under God”. The problem is that the recitation is part of the public school curriculum—in all practicality a mandatory recitation—and that public school teachers, paid employees of the government, are required to lead it. They are the agents of the same state whose scope of delegated powers is limited by the Constitution. The State is not allowed to prevent students from exercising their own religion as long as it does not interfere with school business. (And don’t start the “ZOMG they kicked God out of school” tripe unless you want me to challenge you to provide a single documented incident where public school students aren’t allowed to carry Bibles in their backpack to read in their own time, or to form prayer clubs with other like-minded students.) The flip side of that coin is that the State also cannot compel the students to perform religious observances of any kind. And when you make the recitation of an oath with a religious component mandatory, you violate the religious rights of the students who do not share that faith.
(The objection that “nobody HAS to recite the Pledge” is irrelevant because it disregards that the State doesn’t even have the right to ask the student to choose when it comes to religious observances. And religious exercise must always be an opt-in rather than an opt-out.)
“But wait!” you say. “If the vast majority of students believes in God, shouldn’t the majority get to choose whether the class professes that we’re one nation under Him? Why should the irreligious minority hold the majority hostage when it comes to faith?”
The First Amendment doesn’t protect popular speech because popular speech doesn’t need a Bill of Rights to protect it. And it doesn’t protect the religious rights of just the religious majority. It protects the rights of the outliers, the oddballs, the religious minorities that would otherwise get overridden by the bigger religious factions on the block. When it comes to the Bill of Rights, majority preference is not only irrelevant, but the opposition of majority weight is the very reason for its existence. Our Founding Fathers knew from history that without strong minority protections of basic rights, fifty-one percent of the population would be able to vote the rights of the other forty-nine percent away. That’s why in our system of constitutionally limited government, we get to decide all kinds of things by majority vote, but not any of the basic rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. In other words, you and your street can’t gang up on that weird dude at the end of the block and decide whether he has the right to attend the church he goes to, or whether he has the right to not go to church at all.
This is quite simply not an infringement on your right to practice your own religion, which ends when it touches on someone else’s religious rights. Your religious rights do not give you the ability to use the state to make my children acknowledge the existence and supremacy of your god. You cannot use the state for that purpose even if nobody in the room objects because they all share your faith.
This is not a matter of majority will. It’s not a matter of degree. It’s a matter of principle—the principle that it’s none of the government’s stinkin’ business if you pray, how you pray, to whom you pray, or what the content of your prayer is.
Would it be OK for the local Muslim community to require the school to make the kids recite “Allah is Greatest” every morning? What if they allow you to opt out? No? (I can just imagine the heads exploding all over the country if anyone seriously suggested such a thing—the Muslims asking for the right that the Christian majority has claimed for itself.) Well, if they don’t have that right—and the Bill of Rights says they do not—then you don’t have the right to have the teachers ask my kids to profess that there is a God, and that this nation is subject to Him.
And yes, freedom of religion automatically means freedom from religion, no matter what those bumper stickers say. If you have the right to be a Christian, it follows that you have the right to not be a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, pagan, and so on. And whether the religious majority likes it or not, it means that you have the right to not be religious at all.