Recent court and legislative decisions have fueled the debate over separation of church and state.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stunned nearly everyone when it ruled “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. “They have just gone way too far,” said Delegate Marian Van Landingham. “I remember when those words were added and I can’t see that there is a real problem here. I think that we have far more significant things to worry about than this.”
The Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy in 1892 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the “new world.” As part of the Massachusetts State Education Board, Bellamy was charged with organizing the state’s Columbus Day celebration. He decided to craft a pledge that school children would say aloud in front of the flag — a pledge that would reflect his socialist beliefs. The first version read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Bellamy considered using the word equality but changed his mind because some of his fellow Board members objected to equal rights for women and African-Americans.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower added the phrase “under God” in 1954. “These words will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded,” Eisenhower said at the time.
Bellamy, a Baptist minister, would not have approved of Eisenhower’s change to his pledge. He was forced to leave his Boston church in 1891 because of his socialist-oriented sermons.
“I guess I can see it from both sides,” said Beverly Steele of Alexandria. “On the one hand if you truly want to keep church and state separate, I guess you should remove the words 'under God.' I remember when they were inserted in 1954 and teachers had to keep reminding us to say them. On the other hand, what’s the big issue?”
ALEXANDRIA CITY COUNCILMAN David G. Speck agreed. “I remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer as a child attending Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Alexandria,” he said. “I guess, carried to an extreme, one could challenge why Christmas is a federal holiday. I personally just see it as a nice day off and don’t get terribly concerned about whether I happen to believe in the religious aspects of that holiday.”
Mayor Kerry J. Donley believes that the pledge symbolizes something more. “Particularly after Sept. 11, I think people have become much more patriotic and have sought symbols such as the flag,” he said. “The Pledge of Allegiance is one way that we can express that renewed sense of patriotism.”
The ruling has been appealed.
WHILE THAT COURT is banishing God from the Pledge, the Virginia General Assembly is inserting Him into all public schools in the Commonwealth. The legislature passed a law requiring all public schools to “prominently display” the national motto, “In God We Trust.” Governor Mark Warner signed it into law after the legislative veto session in April.
“He tried to insert an amendment that would have required the state to pay for the motto’s duplication but was unsuccessful,” Van Landingham said. “I guess many of us just felt that this was just another example of pseudo legislation and decided not to fight about it because we had better things to do.”
Alexandria School Board member Mark Wilkoff shared Van Landingham’s opinion. “This is just another example of the kind of legislation that sometimes comes out of ultra conservative legislative bodies,” he said. “I will probably vote against doing it because it is also another unfunded mandate that the General Assembly is trying to impose on us. With the huge gaps in what is needed in the way of funding for our schools and what is available, I don’t know that I can support anything that is going to take money from our local budget.”
Board Member V. Rodger Digilio believes that the Board should vote to display the motto but in a different way. “I think we should blow up a picture of a dollar bill and put the following inscription under it,” he said. “We need to trust in God because we certainly can’t trust the state legislature.”
The Board will vote on the matter on July 2, at its last meeting before summer recess.