Pledge of Allegiance Debate

Newdow & Us
Much more than one case and two words.

By Gilbert T. Sewall

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In 2002, in the case of Newdow v. Elk Grove Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment. Those who object to “under God” say the two words turn the pledge into an unconstitutional religious statement.

Today the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the matter. The case is almost surely destined to enter the history textbooks, especially if it becomes a hot-button issue in this year’s national elections.

The pledge is the customary way of honoring the nation in public schools. It is mandated by law as part of the school program in many states, including California. Public schools started adopting the pledge in 1892, following a campaign on the part of Francis Bellamy, Baptist minister, member of the National Education Association, and the prominent editor of The Youth’s Companion. It is an artifact of the era’s ardent patriotism as well as part of a conscious turn-of-the-century effort to Americanize immigrant children.

Liberal legend has it that “under God”‘s inclusion is simply a function of mid-century McCarthyism — the two words were added by Congress in 1954. But, as James Piereson has observed, the phrase “under God” — introduced by George Washington and reiterated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address — has been in the nation’s public vocabulary since the Founding.

What does the pledge do? It establishes a common political purpose and collective aspiration. It affirms the principle of “liberty and justice for all” citizens. The pledge celebrates a specific political philosophy: the republic of which the flag is a symbol. “Under God” injects the element of providence — and turns the oath into something of a public prayer.

The pledge is one of the nation’s few civic universals. It states in elegant but clear language — in very few words — some public principles that a large number of Americans, especially children, would have a hard time articulating on their own.

Still, for many secularists, God in the pledge suggests a state-imposed religion, an exclusionary one dictated by Christian conservatives. As they see it, proscription would be a victory over repressive cultural forces.

The litigant, Michael Newdow, and his allies — notably the American Civil Liberties Union — are convinced that yanking divine benefaction from the operative American creed is a progressive step toward restoring the purity of the pledge.

Sacramento-based Newdow is a shrewd lawyer and atheist who likes to use press conferences and talk shows as courtrooms. Newdow himself will argue the case before the Court on behalf of his nine-year-old daughter. A plaintiff in other federal cases, he has challenged the 2000 inaugural prayer and the presence of chaplains in Congress.

Meanwhile, for many traditionalists, expunging God from the creed is sacrilege. They say it is a determined and fateful break with the essence of the nation’s Founding. The Court hearing has been preceded by days of Capitol Hill anti-religion rallies and prayer vigils.

Many people on both sides of the matter, religious and not, consider this Newdow campaign absurd and dangerous. Yet the arguments follow 40 years of secularist litigation designed to excise God from public life. The logic of the appeals court is consistent and compatible with numerous federal rulings. In substance and spirit, the Ninth Circuit follows decades of highly restrictive decisions on religion in the nation’s schools. Bearing that in mind, in some ways, no matter the ruling in this case, the damage is already done. One or another faction is likely to contest the results, and demagogues will have a field day. Ugly and long-lasting civic repercussions may ensue from the Newdow case, of the kind that change the course of history.

Gilbert T. Sewall is the director of the American Textbook Council in New York City.

Resources: U.S. Department of Education link


For resources go to:

Resources: Office of Management and Budget, Education Link

Office of Management and Budget

Department of Education

Budget Fiscal Year 2007

Education Debate: The Need to Teach Arabic after 9/11

After Sputnik, It Was Russian; After 9/11, Should It Be Arabic?
The New York Times, June 16, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

Less than a year after the Soviet Union launched a satellite named Sputnik in October 1957, America answered with a counterstrike. It was a piece of legislation, the National Defense Education Act, which aimed at harnessing brain power rather than weaponry for the cold war.

Mostly, the statute poured federal money into stimulating the study of mathematics and science, disciplines most relevant to the arms race, but a portion provided incentives for universities to develop skilled speakers of strategic languages, especially Russian.

Over more than three decades, as the support for language study was written into other federal laws, a steady stream of 30,000 or more American university students took Russian courses each year.

They became not only the translators, cryptologists and intelligence agents required for what President John F. Kennedy famously called the “long twilight struggle” between Communism and the West but also the scholars, diplomats and sundry Sovietologists who in many ways enacted the policy of detente and assisted in the peaceful resolution of the cold war.

Now, nearly three years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and amid a turbulent occupation of Iraq, Congress and the Bush administration have failed to endorse and endow a similar cohort of civilian experts in the languages of the Muslim world.

While the administration has given priority to training more linguists within the military and the national-security apparatus, legislation modeled on the National Defense Education Act and offered repeatedly over several years by Congressional Democrats has not even made it out committee.

Meanwhile, of more than 1.8 million graduates of American colleges and universities in 2003, exactly 22 took degrees in Arabic, according to Department of Education statistics.

“Compared to the cold war, we’re not even at the level of zero,” said Dan E. Davidson, the president of the American Councils for International Education in Washington and a professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “We’re at minus one.”

Such views are widely shared among experts in languages and national security. “In the post-9-11 world, we’ve continued to not get the profundity of the problem,” said Ellen Laipson, a linguist and former intelligence official who is now president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington public policy institute focusing on national security issues. “We’re reduced to putting 800 numbers on the TV screen asking for people who speak Arabic.”

Ms. Laipson referred to one of several episodes in the immediate aftermath of the Al Qaeda attacks that laid bare the government’s language gap. The F.B.I. had a backlog of thousands of hours of audiotape and thousands of pages of written material in Arabic and Central Asian languages waiting for translation.

The State Department had to call a diplomat fluent in Arabic back from retirement to appear on the Al Jazeera cable network. A report in early 2002 by the General Accounting Office confirmed that shortages of linguists had “hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts.”

Representative Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey who has sponsored several measures on language education in the House, recalled meeting with Special Forces soldiers who had been involved in the futile hunt for Osama bin Laden. None, Mr. Holt said, was fluent in Pashto, the primary language along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“There doesn’t seem to be anywhere in our government a strategic view about how you get a new flow of linguists,” Mr. Holt said in an interview last week. “It’s all based on the assumption there’s a pool of linguists already out there. And that’s a fallacious assumption.”

“Last year, Mr. Holt introduced the National Security Language Act, which would have put at least $75 million into encouraging study of critical languages from primary school through the graduate level and culling skilled speakers from ethnic and immigrant communities.

“Two Democratic senators, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, offered a similar package of incentives both in 2001 and 2003 under the rubric of the Homeland Security Education Act. Without Republican backing, those measures went nowhere.

“The Bush administration instead has relied heavily on the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., to meet the nation’s linguistic needs. By design, however, the institute serves only military personnel, accommodating up to 3,500 annually with courses in 21 languages. Trent Duffy, a deputy press secretary in the White House, said the Bush administration addressed nonmilitary language needs with $100 million in aid under the Higher Education Act. “Past that,” he said, “it’s left up to the individual student which fields to pursue.”

Experts in language study offer several reasons for the administration’s seeming indifference. President Bush’s involvement in education is centered on the No Child Left Behind law, which itself has not been fully financed. Neoconservatives inside and outside government have assailed Middle East studies departments — the likely recipients of any increased federal money for advanced study of Arabic and related languages — for alleged bias against the United States and Israel. It is expensive and time-consuming to conduct security checks of Arab immigrants interested in serving as linguists.

“We can hope, but hope won’t do it,” said Richard Brecht, a former Air Force cryptographer who is executive director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Language, a joint project of the Defense Department and the University of Maryland based in College Park. “Five billion dollars for an F-22 will not help us in the battle against terrorism. Language that helps us understand why they’re trying to harm us will.”

Congress will soon demonstrate whether such a realization is taking hold. This week Representative Holt and several Republican co-sponsors are introducing two bills that amount to a pared-down version of his National Security Language Act, this time focusing on higher education and adult civilians at a fraction of the original price tag.

“If Osama bin Laden is indeed America’s most wanted,” Mr. Holt said, “then clearly we’re limited if we can’t speak the language of the people who might be hiding him.”

Resources: Almanac of Policy Issues

Resources: Important education issues for Americans

You may be interested in reading about a number of issues of concern to American citizens regarding education. The opinion research organization, Public Agenda, has compiled some of those topics:

Debate: Pledge of Allegiance controversy in Minnesota

Who will get last word on Pledge of Allegiance in

junior high?

May 13, 2008

Brandt Dahl wasn’t exactly aiming for the Student of the Year Award when he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance last week at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Junior High near Moorhead. But I suspect the eighth-grader may have had a little more swagger in his step after publicly setting school administrators there back on their heels.

If Brandt’s infraction had been a smart-alecky spitball, his one-day, in-school suspension — one of four meted out to errant students — might not have been viewed in some quarters as Dilworth’s equivalent of Abu Ghraib. But in recent decades, the slightest school pressure to honor our flag has inspired a rescue mission from a legal heavyweight — the ACLU.

Last week, the ACLU of Minnesota demanded that the district cease and desist from requiring students to stand during the pledge — students have not been required to recite it — and warned that the district could be liable for attorney’s fees and costs.

The MCLU informed school officials that “staff involved in violating students’ rights should face discipline.” It also recommended “remedial steps,” including a potential formal apology to the disciplined students.

Needless to say, district administrators apparently are moving to modify the policy “to address the protection of the individual’s form of expression,” in the words of the junior high’s principal, Colleen Houglum.

Don’t get me wrong. MCLU executive director Chuck Samuelson and his legal crew generally know their stuff, and I presume that they’re right about the law on this one.

Why did he do it?

But Kim Dahl, Brandt’s mom, discovered a revealing fact when she asked her son why he refused to stand. He had no answer, she told the Star Tribune, adding “he’s just a normal 13-year-old.”

She probably is right. Thirteen-year-olds typically like nothing better than to grab the limelight and thumb their noses at authority.

In his letter, Samuelson had some advice for chastened Dilworth school administrators: “This issue represents a classic ‘teachable moment’ where the school can help to instill the values of good citizenship by modeling respect for the U.S. Constitution and the rights and values that our flag represents.”

A jab at administrators

I suspect, however, that some Dilworth students may learn a different lesson from their buddies’ flirtation with “rights” and the ACLU.

Civics? Constitutional law? More likely, these kids will see that school administrators — the bane of a 13-year-old’s existence — can be brought to heel, and that it feels awfully darn good.

For many Dilworth students, the incident may reinforce a message that our “me first” culture peddles constantly. It’s this: You — and your whims and desires — are the center of the universe. Life is about “asserting” and “expressing” yourself, with no need to consult others’ wishes or think about anything larger than yourself.

Who will teach our kids another, far less appealing lesson? It’s this: You have rights, but you also have responsibilities. These include controlling your desires, being courteous to others and respecting authority. The law does not compel you to pledge allegiance to the American flag or to stand while others do. But simple respect should prompt you to honor those who bled and died for that flag, so that kids like you can sit in an eighth-grade class in Dilworth in the freest and most prosperous nation in history.

Fewer and fewer adults try to teach such lessons these days. But kids need to learn them if our democracy is to continue to flourish.

Today the idea that individual rights trump every other consideration dominates our public square. With its one-dimensional focus, such “rights talk” impoverishes our conversation about what good citizenship requires, and what kind of society we want to be.

‘Rights talk’ wasn’t enough

Kim Dahl wasn’t satisfied with “rights talk.” In a letter to the Star Tribune on Tuesday, she described how she and her son had “a very thoughtful conversation about why people stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem.” Now that Brandt understands this, he has decided to stand for the pledge.

Here’s what I suggest for the kids of Dilworth junior high, so they too can understand. After school officials issue their ACLU-mandated apology, take out a book and read about the shoeless Revolutionary War soldiers who endured a frigid Valley Forge winter to fight for the American flag — and for your freedom. Then invite in some veterans to tell you what they did for that flag on Omaha Beach or at the Battle of the Bulge.

Let the lesson sink in

Follow up with a visit from some students’ grandparents, who can talk about the sacrifices they’ve made to keep the family farm going. Finally, listen to some parents who can describe what it’s like to work two jobs so they can put something by for your college education.

You, students of Dilworth, are the fortunate recipients of these gifts, and the heirs of America’s experiment in ordered liberty.

What are you going to contribute to keep it going?

Katherine Kersten • Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, which can be found at

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Evolution on Trial

The New York Times

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May 6, 2005

In Kansas, Darwinism Goes on Trial Once More

TOPEKA, Kan., May 5 – Six years after Kansas ignited a national debate over the teaching of evolution, the state is poised to push through new science standards this summer requiring that Darwin’s theory be challenged in the classroom.

In the first of three daylong hearings being referred to here as a direct descendant of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, a parade of Ph.D.’s testified Thursday about the flaws they saw in mainstream science’s explanation of the origins of life. It was one part biology lesson, one part political theater, and the biggest stage yet for the emerging movement known as intelligent design, which posits that life’s complexity cannot be explained without a supernatural creator.

Darwin’s defenders are refusing to testify at the hearings, which were called by the State Board of Education’s conservative majority. But their lawyer forcefully cross-examined the other side’s experts, pushing them to acknowledge that nothing in the current standards prevented discussion of challenges to evolution, and peppering them with queries both profound and personal.

“Do the standards state anywhere that science, evolution, is in any way in conflict with belief in God?” the lawyer, Pedro Irigonegaray, asked William S. Harris, a chemist who helped write the proposed changes.

When a later witness, Jonathan Wells, said he enjoyed being in the minority on such a controversial topic, Mr. Irigonegaray retorted, “More than being right?”

If the board adopts the new standards, as expected, in June, Kansas would join Ohio, which took a similar step in 2002, in mandating students be taught that there is controversy over evolution. Legislators in Alabama and Georgia have introduced bills this season to allow teachers to challenge Darwin in class, and the battle over evolution is simmering on the local level in 20 states.

While the proposed standards for Kansas do not specifically mention intelligent design – and many of its supporters prefer to avoid any discussion of it – critics contend they would open the door not just for those teachings, but to creationism, which holds to the Genesis account of God as the architect of the universe.

For Kansas, the debate is déjà vu: the last time the state standards were under review, in 1999, conservatives on the school board ignored their expert panel and deleted virtually any reference to evolution, only to be ousted in the next election.

But over the next few years anti-evolution forces regained the seats. And now, the board’s 6-to-4 anti-evolution majority plans to embrace 20 suggestions promoted by advocates of intelligent design and are using this week’s showcase to help persuade the public. “I was hoping these hearings would help me have some good hard evidence that I could repeat,” Connie Morris, an anti-evolution board member, said in thanking one witness.

Sighing was Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, a physics teacher who took an unpaid day off from Hays High School to attend the hearings. “Kansas has been through this before,” she said. “I’m really tired of going to conferences and being laughed at because I’m from Kansas.”

The proposed changes to the state’s science standards would edit everything from the introduction to notes advising teachers on specific benchmarks for individual grades. Perhaps the most significant shift would be in the very definition of science – instead of “seeking natural explanations for what we observe around us,” the new standards would describe it as a “continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”

Local school districts devise curriculums in Kansas, as in most other states, but the standards provide a template by outlining what will be covered on the statewide science tests, given every other year in grades 4, 7 and 10.

Even as they described their own questioning of evolution as triggered by religious conversion, the experts testifying Thursday avoided mention of a divine creator, instead painting their position as simply one of open-mindedness, arguing that Darwinism had become a dangerous dogma.

“There is no science without criticism,” said Charles Thaxton, a chemist and co-author of the 1984 book “The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories.”

“Any science that weathers the criticism and survives is a better theory for it,” Mr. Thaxton said.

But the debate was as much about religion and politics as science and education, with Mr. Irigonegaray pressing witnesses to find mentions of the theories they were denouncing, like humanism and naturalism, in the standards, and asking whether they believed all scientists were atheists. He largely ignored their detailed briefings to ask each man if he believed Homo sapiens descended from pre-hominids (most said no) and how old he thought earth was (most agreed on 4.5 billion years.)

“These people are going to obfuscate about these definitions,” complained Jack Krebs, vice president of the pro-evolution Kansas Citizens for Science, whose members filled many of the 180 auditorium seats not taken by journalists, who came from as far away as France. “They have created a straw man. They are trying to make science stand for atheism, so they can fight atheism.”

Convened 80 years, to the day, after John Scopes was arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory to his Dayton, Tenn., high school class, the hearings were cut back from six days when the evolutionists decided not to present witnesses.

Beaming from a laptop to a wide screen, the scientists showed textbook pictures of chicken, turtle and human embryos to try to undermine the notion that all species had a common ancestry. Diagrams of complex RNA molecules were offered as evidence of a designed universe. Dr. Harris displayed a brochure for his Intelligent Design Network, which is based in Kansas, depicting a legal scale with “design” and “evolution” on each side and the words “religion” and “naturalism” crossed out in favor of “Scientific Method.”

“You can infer design just by examining something, without knowing anything about where it came from,” Dr. Harris said, offering as an example “The Gods Must be Crazy,” a film in which Africans marvel at a Coke bottle that turns up in the desert. “I don’t know who did it, I don’t know how it was done, I don’t know why it was done, I don’t have to know any of that to know that it was designed.”

Across the street, where the evolutionists tried to entice reporters with sandwiches and snacks, Bob Bowden, an agricultural researcher at Kansas State University, denounced the hearings as a “kangaroo court.”

“When the power shifted on that board, we knew on that day that we lost,” said Dr. Bowden, who has children in the 7th and 12th grades. “It’s bogus.”

But Linda Holloway, a member of the 1999 state board that dumped evolution, said the mainstream scientists’ failure to participate in the hearings signaled that “they’re afraid to be cross-examined, they’re afraid to defend their theory.”

Erika Heikl, 16, one of 14 students from Bishop Seabury Academy, a Christian school in Lawrence, Kan., who attended the hearings, said she believed in evolution – and that the standards should be changed to include its detractors.

“Your views won’t change just from being taught that,” Erika said. “You’ll understand it more.”

Education Debate: Creationism vs. Evolution

Ga. school board OKs alternatives to evolution


September, 2002

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) —A suburban Atlanta school board Thursday night voted unanimously to allow teachers to introduce students to different views about the origins of life.

The Cobb County Board of Education, the state’s second-largest school board, approved the policy change after limited discussion, calling it a “necessary element of providing a balanced education.”

The board’s vote drew cheers from some and expressions of dismay from others in the packed meeting room.

“This supposed victory [by proponents of alternate theories] was shallow, very shallow,” said Jeffrey Selman. Selman and other opponents believe the new policy is a step toward introducing religion — in particular, creationism — in public schools. “We’re going to be watching this very closely.”

The adopted policy, however, included language intended to clarify the board’s position that its action is not an endorsement of one particular theory over another.

“It is the intent of the Cobb County Board of Education that this policy not be interpreted to restrict the teaching of evolution; to promote or require the teaching of creationism; or to discriminate for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, religion in general or non-religion,” a portion of the policy said.

The board’s decision pleased Michael Gray, a Cobb high school junior.

“I had to do a term paper about evolution and there were just things that I could disprove or have alternate reasons for,” Gray told The Associated Press. “I want my brother and sister to be given the option and not told it’s the absolute truth.”

Religion in school?

A lawsuit, filed last month by Selman and the American Civil Liberties Union, prompted the board to reconsider its policy.

Selman, who has a son in Cobb schools, sued the system because some middle and high school science textbooks include a disclaimer telling students that evolution is a theory and not a fact. He argued that the disclaimer was a step toward introducing religion in schools, which is unconstitutional.

Some educators agreed. “This is an intrusion of theological views into the classroom,” said Wyatt Anderson, dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia. “What our students need to learn … is science.”

Cobb school officials took another look at the policy and discussed amending it to include other theories, said board member Lindsey Tippins.

The new policy, he said, drops a provision barring the district from teaching views contrary to “family values,” which he said had been struck down by the courts.

“We’re just cleaning up an old policy,” Tippins said, who added that officials don’t want to force religious thought on students.

Larry Taylor, who has three children in the Cobb County schools, said he doesn’t advocate creationism but believes evolution should not be presented as the only acceptable theory.

“Evolution has not been proven,” said Taylor, who joined the debate over what should be taught in Cobb schools after reading about the ACLU lawsuit. “There are a growing number of scientists who are skeptical about Darwinism.”

The debate of teaching about the origin of species is not limited to suburban Georgia. Ohio educators and parents are split over teaching “intelligent design,” which theorizes that life was designed by a higher power.

In Kansas last year, the state Board of Education voted to restore the theory of evolution to its curriculum, which had been removed in a controversial vote two years earlier.