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‘Under God’ evokes strong local reactions

By Matt Liebowitz, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday June 28, 2002

Wednesday’s court ruling banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools is stirring the nation’s political pot, drawing strong opposition from across the nation – from President George W. Bush in Washington D.C. to Gov. Gray Davis in California’s capital. 

East Bay residents have a lot to say about it, too. 

The local debate follows the 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that the phrase “one nation under God,” is a government endorsement of religion and unconstitutional.  

On Thursday, a federal appeals court judge blocked the court’s ruling from being enforced. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the U.S. Justice Department plans to seek a rehearing. Amanda Savage of Pleasant Hill says the court’s decision in the first place was unnecessary. 

“I don’t see the pledge as a religious thing,” Savage said on Thursday at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park. She said that Michael Newdow, the Sacramento atheist and father of a second-grader who brought the case to court, is “making a big deal” when he doesn’t need to. 

“I don’t think children think about that,” she said. Savage remembered saying the pledge growing up and said it didn’t bother her, nor did it force religion upon her. 

Some locals are not as quick to dismiss the case, however. 

“Now that it’s brought up, I could see modifying it,” said Janet Christensen of Oakland. “We’re becoming more and more a melting pot, and for some people, [‘Under God’] is limiting.” 

Many, like Christensen, expressed concern that the court’s decision will bring everything from presidential oaths to U.S currency under the same unconstitutional category as the pledge. 

“If we’re going to split hairs about ‘under God,’ we need to consider the phrase about ‘Liberty and justice for all,” Christensen said. “We all don’t have the same God, and we all don’t have the same justice.” 

Christensen added that Berkeley, more than other cities, might be a place that would attract support for the decision. 

Echoing Christensen’s sentiment, Berry Lee, a parent at Wilard Middle School in Berkeley, added, “This country is a melting pot, and it’s not right for Christians to force religion on other people.” 

Wednesday’s ruling, if passed, would remove the pledge from schools in nine states covered by the court. These states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. 

In a letter sent yesterday to county and district schools, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin wrote: “I personally believe the Pledge of Allegiance is an appropriate patriotic exercise for California’s school children.”  

The letter identified the current stance of California’s public schools as saying “Until a decision is final, the Department of Education will not direct California’s public schools to change their practices regarding the pledge.” 

Eastin added, “Frankly, if the 9th Circuit ruling were to be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, I would be surprised.” 

Marianne Magid, spokesperson for the Berkeley Unified School District, outlined the specifics of the Education Code of California. 

Magid explained that the code calls for “appropriate patriotic exercises.” The Pledge of Allegiance is one way to satisfy the code, but not the only way. 

With this case straddling politics and religion, the opinions of clergy are at the forefront of debate. 

“As a clergy person, I am against the removal of the phrase,” said Father Tim Godfrey of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Berkeley. 

Godfrey said he respects the opinion of the defendant but would ask him not to exclude the possibility of a God. Removing the controversial phrase would do that, Godfrey said. 

Pastor Ron Parker of Epworth United Methodist Church in north Berkeley has taken a different stance. 

“It’s a huge presumption to include that in the pledge,” he said. The Methodist Church, unlike the Catholic Church, supports the separation of church and state, Parker noted. 

Parker remembers that he was in middle school in Michigan in 1954 when the phrase “under God” was added to the pledge, and said that “even then, I knew people for whom it wouldn’t be true.” 

As a pastor in the diverse city of Berkeley, Parker still holds the same belief. 

“[In] places like Berkeley, there is more support for a pluralism of viewpoints, and more care and recognition for people whom this wouldn’t be something they would want to say.” 

While some say the Pledge of Allegiance is something children blindly recite every morning without paying much attention to it, Parker says otherwise. 

“I think that kids in Berkeley are aware of what they are saying,” he said. 


The Associated Press contributed to this story.