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Pledge ban set for March 10 in nine states

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SAN FRANCISCO, California (Reuters) -- A ruling by a U.S. appeals court could force millions of students to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance within days if the controversial decision is not overturned by a higher court, legal experts said Saturday.

Public schools with some 9.6 million students in nine states have until March 10 to stop reciting the pledge after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals backed its prior ruling that the words "under God" in the pledge are a government endorsement of religion.

The nine states included in 9th Circuit are California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii.

If Friday's decision by the 9th Circuit Court is not stayed by the appellate court or by a U.S. Supreme Court order, it will take effect and may set up a challenge in the high court, the experts said.

"The 9th Circuit Court took the unusual step of saying they would not entertain any more requests for a rehearing," said Vikram Amar, a professor of law at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

"I construe that as a message the 9th Circuit is done with this case and moving it in the direction of the Supreme Court."

However, if the high court does take up the 9th Circuit Court's decision, it may not result in a dramatic final ruling in the controversial area of church and state separation, Amar told Reuters.

"It's hard to see more than a few votes on the Supreme Court to support what the 9th Circuit Court did," Amar said.

"The high court could reverse the 9th Circuit and have a very narrow ruling on 'religion-lite' that says opaque references like this to religion that we've lived with for a long time do not violate the establishment clause."

The words "under God" were added to the pledge in 1954 through a federal law amid a Cold War push to distinguish the United States from an atheistic Soviet Union.

Controversial ruling

Groups supporting the separation of church and state praised the San Francisco-based appellate court's decision, supporting a law suit filed in 2000 by Sacramento, California atheist Michael Newdow.

In his suit against the Elk Grove Unified School District, Newdow challenged the pledge, contending it coerced his elementary school-age daughter and claiming the pledge violated the separation of church and state because it discriminated against atheists.

The 9th Circuit Court's initial June 2002 ruling backing the claims touched off a furor across the country, where the famously liberal San Francisco court was accused of taking a hammer to a pillar of U.S. civic society and bowing to political correctness run amok.

President Bush called the decision "ridiculous," while the U.S. Senate voted 99-0 for a resolution expressing support for the pledge.

The Justice Department joined the White House, the U.S. Congress, State of California and others in asking the 9th Circuit to reconsider its initial ruling that schoolchildren could no longer recite the pledge because of the phrase "one nation under God."

The court's decision rejected the pleas and immediately drew criticism from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"The Justice Department will spare no effort to preserve the rights of all our citizens to pledge allegiance to the American flag," Ashcroft said.

"We will defend the ability of Americans to declare their patriotism through the time-honored tradition of voluntarily reciting the pledge."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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