Last Thursday, the Post-Gazette reported on the decision by the Ninth U.S Circuit Court of Appeals rejecting a lawsuit, brought by Michael Newdow, that challenged the use of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency. On Monday, the Post-Gazette published an editorial praising the court for "refusing to throw new logs on a diminishing fire of controversy" and saying that Mr. Newdow's "obsession is no reason to revive the culture wars for a new set of pointless distractions."
Perhaps the Post-Gazette would not have so cavalierly dismissed Mr. Newdow's "obsession" had they taken the time to consider this case from the point of view of Americans who do not believe in God.
Judge Carlos Bea, writing for the majority, stated that the Pledge of Allegiance is not a prayer, but rather something that "serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded." In this he is absolutely correct; the Pledge is not a prayer and it is intended to unite us. But he could not be more wrong in assuming that this supports keeping "under God" in the Pledge.
Atheist Americans love the United States as much as religious Americans. We, too, want to pledge our fealty and love for the ideals upon which our Republic was founded.
But what is a pledge? It is a promise we make to our country before our fellow citizens. How can atheist Americans make an honest promise to the country we love if we have to lie to make that pledge?
Forcing us to pledge to "one Nation, under God" is to force us to lie because we do not believe in God. And telling us to just not say "under God" compounds the humiliation because it tells us that we can never aspire to be full participants in our country's life.
Our republic was not founded "under God." Our Constitution is a secular document, which doesn't even contain the word "God." On the testimony of Luther Martin, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Maryland and a devout Christian, the Constitution was deliberately written to exclude God and to establish the United States as a secular nation, where both atheists and believers would be equal citizens. Forcing us to lie in the Pledge of Allegiance makes us second-class citizens.
Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus because sitting in the back was inconvenient. Nor was it ultimately because she had worked all day and her feet hurt. No, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus because she was tired of being called a second-class citizen. Would the Post-Gazette of 50 years ago have written an editorial calling Rosa Parks' stand against the Jim Crow racism of her day an "obsession" and accuse her of stoking the fires of controversy for a "pointless distraction"?
If the Post-Gazette thinks that the words "under God" and "In God We Trust" are so innocuous that atheist Americans have no reason to object to their presence in the Pledge or on our money, then they should also think that these words are so innocuous that religious Americans would have no reason to object to their absence. And if religious Americans do object to their absence, perhaps the words are not so innocuous after all.
We atheist Americans do not want to scrub every mention of God from the public square, but we do demand, as is the right of every U.S. citizen to demand, a civic space in which we can come together with our fellow citizens as equal participants in this American experiment in democracy. And, in as religiously diverse a country as ours, that civic space must be God-free.
We atheist Americans understand how much you religious Americans love your God and your religion. We see the evidence of this love every day. We would no more want to prevent you from expressing that love than we would want to be forced to worship a God we don't believe in.
But taking the words "under God" out of the Pledge and "In God We Trust" off our money does not diminish that love or demean your God. To the contrary, it exalts Him. No, it is using His name as a tool to turn your fellow Americans into second-class citizens that demeans your God.
Victor Bernard is a member of the advisory board of the Center for Inquiry Pittsburgh , an activist group of rationalists, skeptics and humanists that sponsors events, lectures and educational programs. He lives in Murrysville.