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“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” It was at this exact moment Marlon Brando, as he was being sworn in as a witness at Christian Brando’s trial, stated that he would not, as a matter of fact, swear to tell the truth before God, and asked to take an atheist-appropriate oath. Mr. Brando was quickly given the alternate oath, was sworn in, and things progressed as normal. No great fuss or bother; a particular case was made and accepted by a court of law, his rights as a free thinking, autonomous human being were honored, and life continued. In regards to yesterday’s Pledge of Allegiance decision, one wonders why, at the very beginning, one autonomous person couldn’t have gone to another and asked that his rights, in the name of his daughter, be respected.
Actually, what one wonders is, “Does the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals deliberately hand down certain verdicts just to see how long it takes before they’re overturned?” Certainly seems that way; all Wednesday’s ruling did was open those proverbial and oft mentioned floodgates. The majority of America’s Right-wing immediately melted down, and politicians of all stripes found benefit in thumping their chests as a symbolic thumbing of the nose, in hopes it would help their parties in a pivotal election year. Not necessarily inappropriate actions; there’s rarely any genuine harm that can be done to those who choose the correct side in a no-brainer.
Every television news and / or analysis program yesterday showed the following graphic, at least once: “Michael Newdow, atheist,” so his position on the matter could be immediately known. A basic point of contention seemed to be, Wouldn’t you have to be an atheist to oppose the Pledge of Allegiance? Well, no; his point – that his daughter was damaged because she was forced to recite the pledge with her class, a problem because of the words “under God” – is shaky, but legitimate. Mr. Newdow is as free to raise his daughter as is a Christian, and therefore has the same right to oppose public institutions as any other tax paying citizen. And had this not been taken to an illogical extreme (i.e., court), reasonable minds could have concluded Mr. Newdow was acting within the boundaries afforded any parent, had they ever heard of the case at all.
Let’s not fill ourselves so full of righteous indignation we confuse or forget an important point: divided into halves, the case is all at once completely understandable and silly. The first half rightly suggests a parent is able to decide (and should, according to his beliefs) what his child should be subjected to; the second half rather comically suggests that freedom to choose mysteriously ends when one steps into a public school. Why couldn’t an atheist simply teach his child to utter “one nation, not under God” under his breath at the critical moment? Because exercising his parental freedoms wasn’t the point.
If you found yourself wondering, as I did, why every piece of interview footage featuring Michael Newdow was in front of a different background – or how he became so polished an interview in such a short amount of time – it’s because this crusade against God has been long and continuous, contradicting the image of a single concerned atheist striking out against the majority. Before this case (or was it during?), Mr. Newdow had gone to federal court and failed in an attempt to force President Bush to stop mentioning religion at public occasions; his was not a random concern, it was a systematic struggle, part of which he finally won yesterday.
One cannot, and shouldn’t, express any palpable concern over such a ruling, at least not this one. The speed with which we will see a (very public) reversal will be amazing, at least when considered in judicial terms. That leaves us time to take up the old complaints against the Ninth Circuit, namely its propensity for awful decision making. Last month, notes today’s Wall Street Journal (page A20), the Ninth Circuit ruled “Rastafarians could smoke marijuana on federal lands because pot is sacred to their religion.”
Ah-ha. So at least the distinction is finally made, and carefully: There must be a separation of Church and State, and therefore of religion and publicly funded or owned property, unless the religion is an organized joke and pot is involved. (That seems about right; pot has always meant more to the Left than God.) Are you irritated yet? Wait; first read this, from the majority opinion by Alfred Goodwin, the 80-year-old Nixon appointee: “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.’” (That sound you hear is Judge Goodwin’s career coming to an end; I had an 80-year-old great- grandfather once … we wouldn’t let him touch the remote control, let alone decide a court case.)
The disagreement here isn’t religious, just visceral; any regular reader of this column is well aware of the fact this columnist has never, ever been a friend to organized religion, or of those who take it too seriously. But come on. Some years ago there was a slight to-do over a first grade girl who, when it came to that moment in the Pledge of Allegiance, simply kept her mouth shut and didn’t say “under God.” That, at least, was dignified. Michael Newdow, as well as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, would do well to learn from that previous and proud display of dignity.
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