Sunday, January 20, 2008

Who or What is(are) God(s) is not a legal issue.

The issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Newdow v. Rio Linda Unified School District is not whether a particular patriotic ritual is or is not a prayer, the issue is whether that patriotic ritual violates the Establishment Clause because of the 1954 addition of the religious phrase "Under God". Kevin Hasson of the Becket Fund, properly addressing this issue, recently argued before the court that the God in the Pledge of Allegiance is the same God referred to in the Declaration of Independence who is not the deity in the Bible. "It wasn't the Christian God. It wasn't the Jewish God. It was the philosopher's God," Mr. Hasson said. He said the "under God" phrase refers to a creator who early philosophers and scientists like Aristotle concluded "could be known by reason alone." How does Hasson read all of that into just those two words?

The 1954 law itself does not define God. But at least one of the authors and one of the advocates for the law did make it clear that atheists were knowingly and deliberately being disparaged by the law. Congressman Louis Rabaut, the 1953 author of the congressional resolution to amend the Pledge, said "an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms." While President Eisenhower listened from the front pew, the Reverend George Docherty of the New York Presbyterian Church in Washington DC advocated passing the 1954 law. He called atheists "spiritual parasites" that live off of the "accumulated spiritual capital of Judaio (sic)-Christian civilization" and "deny the God who revealed the divine principles upon which the ethics of this country grow." Atheists "cannot deny the Christian revelation and logically live by the Christian ethic. And if he denies the Christian ethic, he falls short of the American ideal of life." The 1954 Washington Post treated Docherty's bigoted sermon "like the act of a true hero."

Some of the Founders appeared to endorse the syncretic belief that the same God is worshipped by people from all religions, including American Indian religions, Hinduism, etc. However, it is unlikely that most Americans either then or today, or even most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, let alone most of the Congress people who voted for 1954 law, conceived of God that way. Even if most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and most of the Congress people who passed the 1954 law believed at the time that God is "the creator who could be known by reason alone." as defined by Aristotle how would such a fact validate the constitutionality of the 1954 Pledge law? A religious belief doesn't become non-religious just because some philosophers professed that belief.

Aristotle was wrong, we do not "know the creator" from reason alone. But even if you incorrectly agree with Aristotle, our government has no jurisdiction over which philosopher's metaphysics is right or wrong. Philosophers disagreed about God. Thales (546 B.C.) said that a stone had a soul. Melissus (440 B.C.) said what exists has always existed. Anaxagoras (428 B.C.) said there is no creation and no passing away, just an eternal mixing and reshuffling of elements. Protagoras (440 B.C.) said he doesn't know whether the Gods exist or not. Euclid (440 B.C.) said only the Good exists, its opposite is nonexistence. Atheism is a legitimate belief, as legitimate as any of the competing beliefs, indeed better justified than any of the competing beliefs in my opinion and the opinion of millions of U.S. citizens. Our government is acting outside of its constitutional powers when it passes laws whose primary purpose and effect is to imply that our atheism, or anyone else's polytheism, is less patriotic than monotheism.

These disagreements regarding god(s) are not questions that can be settled by passing laws. These are issues of personal conscience and government's only constitutional role on such issues of personal conscience is to respect our individual freedom of conscience to disagree or agree with Aristotle or any other philosopher, or with any signer of the Declaration of Independence, or with any Congress person regarding who the gods are, who god is, or whether a god exists. It should be obvious that it is well outside the bounds of the Establishment Clause for our government to be defining on behalf of all citizens who God is and is not or what God's attributes are and are not or how God is or is not "known".

Government teaching the words of the Declaration of Independence or any other historical document is not a government endorsement of the religious beliefs contained therein just like government is not endorsing atheism when it teaches science. As long as government teaches history and science according to the expert consensus among historians and scientists based on the evidence then government is being neutral with respect to religion regardless of whether or not the science or the history is itself neutral. The harm to atheists of government endorsement of monotheism, especially in a government led participatory ritual for impressionable young children, is not abated by the Declaration of Independence anymore than a similar historical document that was Christian would abate the harm to non-Christians of government endorsement of explicitly Christian beliefs. Either we oppose government establishments or we don’t. If we oppose government establishment then no historical document that appeals to religious beliefs excuses justifying current and future government establishment of those beliefs.

The text of the official Pledge, codified in federal law, impermissibly takes a position with respect to the purely religious question of the existence and identity of God. A profession that we are a nation "under God" is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation "under Jesus," a nation "under Vishnu," a nation "under Zeus," or a nation "under no god," because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion. "
Judge Alfred Goodwin, Newdow versus United States Congress, No. 00-16423, UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT, June 26, 2002.

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