The issue of the Pledge was made national with the court case by Michael Newdow, an atheist, whose daughter attended public elementary school in the Elk Grove Unified School District in California (“Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow”). In the school everyday, the Pledge was performed by the students at their own decision. Mr. Newdow, the legal guardian of his daughter, took the case to court, citing that encouraging children to pledge to God everyday was in essence endorsing religion.
Through lengthy court battles, Newdow’s arguments were agreed with by a federal court, and “under God” was considered in violation of the country’s Establishment Clause. However, when appealed to the Supreme Court, the case was thrown out because Newdow was not technically the child’s father and could not represent her. The case has currently gone into another round of appeals, but the reaction to it may have been enough, for it sparked a renewed dialogue about the separation of church and state.
While schoolchildren still give the God-containing Pledge of Allegiance in federally funded public schools, the issue of prayer has caused similar concern. According to the Department of Education, teachers and administrators in public schools that receive funding from the federal government may not require students to participate in organized prayer. However, they also cannot prevent students from independently exercising their religious freedoms.
As the Supreme Court has explained in several cases, “there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect” (U. S. Department of Education). The rights of students who wish to pray together in school cannot and should not be infringed upon. Public schools should also not require students to participate in prayer. As always, the ultimate issue remains the freedom of choice for the individual.
Another recent controversial issue concerning the separation between church and state has been over the placement of religious monuments on federal property, like the Ten Commandments. The issue of the Decalogue being displayed on federal property came to national attention in 2003 when an Alabama Supreme Court Judge refused to follow a court order to remove a monument of the Commandments he placed in front of the state’s Supreme Court building, resulting in his removal from office (Richey).
In the next two years, the issue of displaying the Commandments on government property twice reached the Supreme Court, and the decisions provided little clear direction in the issue. In both cases, displays of the Commandments on federal property were reviewed, and the Court decided that displaying the Commandments was permissible as long as it was for secular purposes and not to foster the proselytizing of religion (Richey).
Many of the simple laws of the Commandments reflect well upon American laws, and the ancient text about not killing or stealing can only be seen as beneficial to understanding societal aims. However, despite how positive the message of the Commandments, the ancient texts of all religions must be included to maintain the idea of religious equality.