The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will hear a case deciding whether reciting the word’s “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools violates the separation of church and state.

As anticipated, the high court accepted the appeal of a California atheist who says requiring his daughter to hear the words “one nation under God” in the pledge amounts to a daily establishment of religion, violating the First Amendment.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the man, Michael Newdow of Sacramento, in June 2002, banning teachers in nine western states under its jurisdiction from leading the pledge in classrooms. That ban was put on hold, however, pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case sets the stage for an emotional debate over the separation of church and state and role of religion in public life. People on both sides looked forward to oral arguments, which the court will hear sometime in the next year,

“This is a critical First Amendment case that will have wide-ranging implications,” Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said in a statement.

Sekulow described the case as an “opportunity to put a halt to a national effort aimed at removing any religious phrase or reference from our culture.”

Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called it one of the most controversial cases involving religion in schools since school-prayer cases in the early 1960s.

“No one should feel coerced to take part in a religious exercise to express patriotism,” Lynn said. Requiring school children to recite a daily religious loyalty quest, he said, “is simply wrong.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush is glad the Supreme Court is accepting the case.

“We have said that we felt it was a wrong decision in the first place, and we’re pleased that the Supreme Court has taken that matter up,” he said in Tuesday’s press briefing.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by a Baptist minister, but the words “one nation under God,” weren’t in the original. Congress officially recognized the pledge in 1942 but didn’t add the disputed phrase until amending it in 1954.

Since the 1960s, phrases like “under God” in the pledge have been found constitutional under a doctrine called “ceremonial deism,” which allows customary expressions of religion that might otherwise transgress the establishment clause. Other examples are celebrating Christmas as a national holiday and using the motto “In God We Trust” on currency, practices deemed “so conventional and uncontroversial as to be constitutional.”

Including the words “under God” in the pledge doesn’t make it unconstitutional, said J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee, because it merely acknowledges Americans “are a religious people.” The dispute over the language, he said, however, illustrates the danger posed by civil religion of trivializing matters of faith.

“The vitality of religion in America is diminished by blurring the allegiance to government with our ultimate allegiance to God,” Walker said. “Are we any more religious today than we were before ‘under God’ was put into the pledge in 1954?

“I’m not sure. But if we are, it has more to do with a commitment to full-orbed religious liberty than with the mere repetition of God’s name in our pledge of patriotism.”

In other disputes, the practice of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools has been upheld as long as students who object are allowed to opt out.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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