Pledge of Allegiance ruling recalls school prayer debate

July 02, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WITH LAST week's court ruling on the Pledge of Allegiance, I immediately thought of two familiar names: God and Leonard Kerpelman. The two have had their uneasy public connection. But when a federal appeals court declared "under God" should be removed from the pledge recited every school day morning, I figured Kerpelman would cheer, and God in his wisdom would understand.

"I thought the court's decision was encouraging, and the outcry against it has made me ill," Kerpelman, 77, was saying over the weekend. "People don't understand the Constitution - or they pretend they don't. It's more than just separation of church and state. I don't like overt expressions of piety. And I don't like captive children being forced to do something that might violate their personal beliefs."

He comes at this with a history that changed America. Four decades ago, Kerpelman was Madalyn Murray O'Hair's attorney. She was a Baltimore housewife, and an atheist, who had kids in the public schools. She didn't want them exposed to classroom prayers every morning.

She and Kerpelman took her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which responded by removing organized prayer from the public schools. It did not, of course, change in any way all private prayers whispered immediately before tests. That is an act that goes on unabated, and undebated, the distinction being neither O'Hair nor Kerpelman wished to impose their views on others who might wish a private word with God. But they also did not want others' views imposed on them.

If you think last week's ruling was controversial, you've forgotten the rage of 40 years ago, when O'Hair and Kerpelman were accused of trying to turn America into a nation of atheists and of sabotaging the nation's traditional right to worship God.

Kerpelman's own perception of God?

"I don't like to discuss that," he said, with a kind of embarrassed chuckle. "It puts people off."

Which is exactly his point, then and now: We are a multicultural society. It is precisely the American strength that we allow people to worship God in their own way - or not at all - because one's relationship with one's God is a private matter. Belief in a supreme being is an act of faith, and not necessarily fact. No one knows for sure - no one - including those who wish fervently to believe in a God who exerts moral force over the universe.

In fact, the Pledge of Allegiance's own bumpy history is testament to that mix of American beliefs. Written in 1892 by a Baptist minister, the Rev. Francis Bellamy, the original pledge contained no reference to God or country. It read:

"I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It was three decades later before "my flag" was changed to "the flag of the United States of America," at the prodding of the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

And it was another quarter-century before "under God" was added by Congress, after much lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. The phrase stood until last week, when a federal appeals court in San Francisco declared that reciting the pledge was unconstitutional because of those very words.

But the nation was so enraged that - one day later - the court put the ruling on hold indefinitely.

Which gets us back to those kids reciting the pledge each morning in class.

"My feeling is that you shouldn't deal with captive children like that," Kerpelman said. "That's what really riles me. We have schools that take a mixed group of kids and impart the values of one group - those who are monotheistic. If I were a Buddhist, for example, it would bother me very deeply if my kids were indoctrinated with non-Buddhist values.

"Or whatever beliefs regarding God and religion, Buddhist or atheist or whatever. That kind of stuff belongs in the home, or in the house of worship. That's where we deal with notions of God."

There are, of course, other problems. Reciting a pledge, or offering a prayer, are intended as daily reinforcements of belief for young minds. In fact, by their very repetition, they sometimes have the reverse effect of removing all sense of intended emotion and meaning. The words are just words, recited in a familiar and numbing cadence.

Maybe we should leave it to the kids: Make reference to God if you wish, or save it for private moments if that makes you more comfortable.

Then we can return to other concerns: about schools that have classrooms so overcrowded, and teachers so overworked, and the kids come from such broken families and the schools are so underfunded that - "under God" or not - at the end of the day, a lot of these kids frankly haven't got a prayer.

That should bother us at least as much as two words in a daily pledge.

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