By God, the Judge Doesn’t Get It

imagine_noStrange coincidence. I was rather taken aback when I recently learned that my 5th grader’s class at an otherwise reasonably progressive and fairly competently run school recites the cringeworthy Pledge of Allegiance every day… And then today, as I started to look into our school district guidelines on that particularly prickly matter, I learn that a ruling was very recently passed in the pending 1st Amendment case before the NH courts on this very issue.

Unfortunately, the judge hearing the case seems to have a rather novel interpretation of the core issue, because in his decision he states:

“The Pledge of Allegiance is not a religious prayer, nor is it a ‘nonsectarian prayer,'” McAuliffe wrote. “. . . and its recitation in schools does not constitute a ‘religious exercise.’ The Pledge does not thank God. It does not ask God for a blessing, or for guidance. It does not address God in any way. . . . Rather, the Pledge in content and function, is a civic patriotic statement — an affirmation of adherence to the principles to which the nation stands.”

How he can claim that the phrase “One Nation, Under God” does not address God in any way is beyond me. And given the rather pathetic history of the insertion of that particularly offensive phrase in an already torrid bit of jingoistic, patriotic propaganda, it’s all the more disappointing.

Elaborating, the decision declares:

“While the First Amendment affords atheists complete freedom to disbelieve, it does not compel the federal judiciary to redact religious references in every area of public life in order to suit atheistic sensibilities.”

Freedom to disbelieve? Atheistic sensibilities? Redaction? I’m sorry, but that’s pretty offensive. This is not just any old “area of public life” — the pledge is imposed upon impressionable kids in the context of what is supposed to be a learning environment, committed first and foremost to the teaching of facts and knowledge. But given that God remains pure conjecture — a fantasy shared by many but proven by none — isn’t it just a tad embarrassing to be promote that kind of ignorance and cluelessness as the gold standard from which you are permitted to deviate if you dare? Moreover, that sordid little God clause was inserted into the original pledge to further a Bible-thumping agenda at the height of the Cold War, in an attempt to emphasize how much more enlightened and superior “we” Xtians were, compared to those heathen, atheist Communists. Challenging the clause would seem to be, then, not so much a request for redaction as a much-overdue correction. Or does the New Hampshire Board of Ed still harbor the belief that Xtians really are superior to atheists? Repeated daily, it is the singlemost prominent thing in their curriculum, and since — to my knowledge at least — a discussion of 1st Amendment rights won’t happen until high school, it must be assumed to stand unchallenged as a fact, given how it is presented to the kids by the same teachers who provide them with all their other facts. Perhaps, as Robert Scheer pointed out in 2002:

Instead of a blind loyalty oath to God and country–as defined by Congress and the President–the schools should be encouraging study of the complex relationship between religion, in all its forms, and civic society.

Now, New Hampshire does have a statute that requires schools to facilitate the Pledge of Allegiance daily. Sucky rule, arguably unconstitutional (perhaps to be proven so, if and when a case comes before a judge that actually, you know, gets the 1st Amendment), but the law nonetheless. While the NH court in its opinion goes to great lengths to defend the supposedly secular purpose of the NH pledge statute, it’s quite striking how that statute gets away with forcing rote patriotism on school kids (already a questionable activity) while at the same time infusing said patriotism with the notion that God and submission to God is somehow part of being a patriot (a much more questionable activity). The implication seems to be that atheists and agnostics are somehow less patriotic because they refuse to see God as part of the patriotic “package.” That this should form part of the guidelines for a secular education makes one wonder if there’s a radically different interpretation of education at play here, one that smacks more of indoctrination.

Vermont, on the other hand, does not mandate either way — there’s no requirement of the pledge to be recited in public schools, but no ban on it, either. ‘Twould seem to me, then, to be up to the individual school district to decide. This, of course, was what lead to the heated and largely fabricated controversy in Woodbury, Vt. last year, when a particularly rabid wingnut tried more-or-less successfully to force the pledge back into his local school.

Which brings me back to my local school. My son says his 4th grade teacher last year did not make the kids recite the pledge, and, apparently, one of the 6th grade classes do fun stuff like counting to ten in Italian to get the day started. If there is an official school position (and I’m still trying to track one down) it appears to be “do whatever” — which is pretty lame, given how controversial the subject can get. It’s hard to imagine that a school board or administrator would simply say to the teachers: “sure, it’s not like we’re under pressure to make sure they get the curriculum or anything, so if you want to waste a chunk of the kids’ time reciting the Pledge every day, you go right ahead.” At the very least, I’d like to think that a board or administrator has a good explanation for taking that stance and is prepared to defend it from criticism.

Because here’s the thing: study after study shows that American kids are already woefully behind the curve on history and facts and whatnot. So, how about, instead of coercing them into repeating a mindless, pointless, and quite embarrassingly archaic bit of trivia every day, the teachers picked a new quote from history every day, put it in context and had the kids reflect on that for a minute? That would teach them something new, keep things interesting, and avoid the whole sappy patriotism and “Under God” business entirely… heck, in that particular context, I’d argue that it would be perfectly reasonable for the kids to hear a heavily religious quote now and then.

Thankfully, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has vowed to appeal the decision and continue their struggle to right this wrong. All the best to them.