ELK GROVE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT et al. v. NEWDOW et al.
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
No. 02-1624. Argued March 24,
2004-Decided June 14, 2004
Stevens, J., delivered the
opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer,
JJ., joined. Rehnquist, C. J., filed an opinion concurring in the
judgment, in which O'Connor, J., joined, and in which Thomas, J.,
joined as to Part I. O'Connor, J., and Thomas, J., filed opinions
concurring in the judgment. Scalia, J., took no part in the
consideration or decision of the case.
The Pledge of Allegiance was initially conceived more than a century ago. As part of the nationwide interest in commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America, a widely circulated national magazine for youth proposed in 1892 that pupils recite the following affirmation: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all." In the 1920's, the National Flag Conferences replaced the phrase "my Flag" with "the flag of the United States of America."
In 1942, in the midst of World War II, Congress adopted, and the President signed, a Joint Resolution codifying a detailed set of "rules and customs pertaining to the display and use of the flag of the United States of America." Chapter 435, 56 Stat. 377. Section 7 of this codification provided in full:
"That the pledge of allegiance to the flag, 'I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all', be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart; extending the right hand, palm upward, toward the flag at the words 'to the flag' and holding this position until the end, when the hand drops to the side. However, civilians will always show full respect to the flag when the pledge is given by merely standing at attention, men removing the headdress. Persons in uniform shall render the military salute."
This resolution, which marked the first appearance of the Pledge of Allegiance in positive law, confirmed the importance of the flag as a symbol of our Nation's indivisibility and commitment to the concept of liberty.
Congress revisited the Pledge of Allegiance 12 years later when it amended the text to add the words "under God." Act of June 14, 1954, ch. 297, 68 Stat. 249. The House Report that accompanied the legislation observed that, "[f]rom the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God." The resulting text is the Pledge as we know it today: "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 March 2000, Newdow filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California against the United States Congress, the President of the United States, the State of California, and the Elk Grove Unified School District and its superintendent. At the time of filing, Newdow's daughter was enrolled in kindergarten in the Elk Grove Unified School District and participated in the daily recitation of the Pledge. Styled as a mandamus action, the complaint explains that Newdow is an atheist who was ordained more than 20 years ago in a ministry that "espouses the religious philosophy that the true and eternal bonds of righteousness and virtue stem from reason rather than mythology." The complaint seeks a declaration that the 1954 Act's addition of the words "under God" violated the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the United States Constitution, as well as an injunction against the School District's policy requiring daily recitation of the Pledge. It alleges that Newdow has standing to sue on his own behalf and on behalf of his daughter as "next friend."
The case was referred to a Magistrate Judge, whose brief findings and recommendation concluded, "the Pledge does not violate the Establishment Clause." The District Court adopted that recommendation and dismissed the complaint on July 21, 2000. The Court of Appeals reversed and issued three separate decisions discussing the merits and Newdow's standing.
In its first opinion the appeals court unanimously held that Newdow has standing "as a parent to challenge a practice that interferes with his right to direct the religious education of his daughter." That holding sustained Newdow's standing to challenge not only the policy of the School District, where his daughter still is enrolled, but also the 1954 Act of Congress that had amended the Pledge, because his " 'injury in fact' " was " 'fairly traceable' " to its enactment. On the merits, over the dissent of one judge, the court held that both the 1954 Act and the School District's policy violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After the Court of Appeals' initial opinion was announced, Sandra Banning, the mother of Newdow's daughter, filed a motion for leave to intervene, or alternatively to dismiss the complaint. She declared that although she and Newdow shared "physical custody" of their daughter, a state-court order granted her "exclusive legal custody" of the child, "including the sole right to represent [the daughter's] legal interests and make all decision[s] about her education" and welfare. Banning further stated that her daughter is a Christian who believes in God and has no objection either to reciting or hearing others recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or to its reference to God. Banning expressed the belief that her daughter would be harmed if the litigation were permitted to proceed, because others might incorrectly perceive the child as sharing her father's atheist views. Banning accordingly concluded, as her daughter's sole legal custodian, that it was not in the child's interest to be a party to Newdow's lawsuit...
In a second published opinion,
the Court of Appeals reconsidered Newdow's standing in light of
Banning's motion. The court noted that Newdow no longer claimed to
represent his daughter, but unanimously concluded that "the grant of
sole legal custody to Banning" did not deprive Newdow, "as a
noncustodial parent, of Article III standing to object to
unconstitutional government action affecting his child."
We granted the School District's petition for a writ of certiorari to consider two questions: (1) whether Newdow has standing as a noncustodial parent to challenge the School District's policy, and (2) if so, whether the policy offends the First Amendment....
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.
The Court today erects a novel prudential standing principle in order to avoid reaching the merits of the constitutional claim. I dissent from that ruling. On the merits, I conclude that the Elk Grove Unified School District (School District) policy that requires teachers to lead willing students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the words "under God," does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment....
....Respondent asserts that the School District's pledge ceremony infringes his right under California law to expose his daughter to his religious views. While she is intimately associated with the source of respondent's standing (the father-daughter relationship and respondent's rights thereunder), the daughter is not the source of respondent's standing; instead it is their relationship that provides respondent his standing, which is clear once respondent's interest is properly described. The Court's criticisms of the Court of Appeals' Article III standing decision and the prudential prohibition on third-party standing provide no basis for denying respondent standing.
Although the Court may have succeeded in confining this novel principle almost narrowly enough to be, like the proverbial excursion ticket-good for this day only-our doctrine of prudential standing should be governed by general principles, rather than ad hoc improvisations.
Congress amended the Pledge to include the phrase "under God" in 1954. The amendment's sponsor, Representative Rabaut, said its purpose was to contrast this country's belief in God with the Soviet Union's embrace of atheism. We do not know what other Members of Congress thought about the purpose of the amendment. Following the decision of the Court of Appeals in this case, Congress passed legislation that made extensive findings about the historic role of religion in the political development of the Nation and reaffirmed the text of the Pledge. Act of Nov. 13, 2002, Pub. L. 107-293, §§1-2, 116 Stat. 2057-2060. To the millions of people who regularly recite the Pledge, and who have no access to, or concern with, such legislation or legislative history, "under God" might mean several different things: that God has guided the destiny of the United States, for example, or that the United States exists under God's authority. How much consideration anyone gives to the phrase probably varies, since the Pledge itself is a patriotic observance focused primarily on the flag and the Nation, and only secondarily on the description of the Nation.
The phrase "under God" in the Pledge seems, as a historical matter, to sum up the attitude of the Nation's leaders, and to manifest itself in many of our public observances. Examples of patriotic invocations of God and official acknowledgments of religion's role in our Nation's history abound.
At George Washington's first inauguration on April 30, 1789, he "stepped toward the iron rail, where he was to receive the oath of office. The diminutive secretary of the Senate, Samuel Otis, squeezed between the President and Chancellor Livingston and raised up the crimson cushion with a Bible on it. Washington put his right hand on the Bible, opened to Psalm 121:1: 'I raise my eyes toward the hills. Whence shall my help come.' The Chancellor proceeded with the oath: 'Do you solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of your ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?' The President responded, 'I solemnly swear,' and repeated the oath, adding, 'So help me God.' He then bent forward and kissed the Bible before him."
Later the same year, after encouragement from Congress, Washington issued his first Thanksgiving proclamation, which began: "Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the problems of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me 'to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.' "
Almost all succeeding Presidents have issued similar Thanksgiving proclamations.
Later Presidents, at critical times in the Nation's history, have likewise invoked the name of God. Abraham Lincoln, concluding his masterful Gettysburg Address in 1863, used the very phrase "under God":
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotions to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."....President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, taking the office of the Presidency in the depths of the Great Depression, concluded his first inaugural address with these words: "In this dedication of a nation, we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us! May He guide me in the days to come!"
The motto "In God We Trust" first appeared on the country's coins during the Civil War. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, acting under the authority of an Act of Congress passed in 1864, prescribed that the motto should appear on the two cent coin. The motto was placed on more and more denominations, and since 1938 all United States coins bear the motto. Paper currency followed suit at a slower pace; Federal Reserve notes were so inscribed during the decade of the 1960's. Meanwhile, in 1956, Congress declared that the motto of the United States would be "In God We Trust." Act of July 30, 1956, ch. 795, 70 Stat. 732.
Our Court Marshal's opening proclamation concludes with the words " 'God save the United States and this honorable Court.' " The language goes back at least as far as 1827....
All of these events strongly
suggest that our national culture allows public recognition of our
Nation's religious history and character. In the words of the House
Report that accompanied the insertion of the phrase "under God" in the
Pledge: "From the time of our earliest history our peoples and our
institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was
founded on a fundamental belief in God...."
Notwithstanding the voluntary nature of the School District policy, the Court of Appeals, by a divided vote, held that the policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it "impermissibly coerces a religious act." To reach this result, the court relied primarily on our decision in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 (1992). That case arose out of a graduation ceremony for a public high school in Providence, Rhode Island. The ceremony was begun with an invocation, and ended with a benediction, given by a local rabbi. The Court held that even though attendance at the ceremony was voluntary, students who objected to the prayers would nonetheless feel coerced to attend and to stand during each prayer. But the Court throughout its opinion referred to the prayer as "an explicit religious exercise," and "a formal religious exercise."
As the Court notes in its opinion, "the Pledge of Allegiance evolved as a common public acknowledgement of the ideals that our flag symbolizes. Its recitation is a patriotic exercise designed to foster national unity and pride in those principles."
I do not believe that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge converts its recital into a "religious exercise" of the sort described in Lee. Instead, it is a declaration of belief in allegiance and loyalty to the United States flag and the Republic that it represents. The phrase "under God" is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion, but a simple recognition of the fact noted in H. R. Rep. No. 1693, at 2: "From the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God." Reciting the Pledge, or listening to others recite it, is a patriotic exercise, not a religious one; participants promise fidelity to our flag and our Nation, not to any particular God, faith, or church.
There is no doubt that respondent is sincere in his atheism and rejection of a belief in God. But the mere fact that he disagrees with this part of the Pledge does not give him a veto power over the decision of the public schools that willing participants should pledge allegiance to the flag in the manner prescribed by Congress. There may be others who disagree, not with the phrase "under God," but with the phrase "with liberty and justice for all." But surely that would not give such objectors the right to veto the holding of such a ceremony by those willing to participate. Only if it can be said that the phrase "under God" somehow tends to the establishment of a religion in violation of the First Amendment can respondent's claim succeed, where one based on objections to "with liberty and justice for all" fails. Our cases have broadly interpreted this phrase, but none have gone anywhere near as far as the decision of the Court of Appeals in this case. The recital, in a patriotic ceremony pledging allegiance to the flag and to the Nation, of the descriptive phrase "under God" cannot possibly lead to the establishment of a religion, or anything like it.
When courts extend constitutional prohibitions beyond their previously recognized limit, they may restrict democratic choices made by public bodies. Here, Congress prescribed a Pledge of Allegiance, the State of California required patriotic observances in its schools, and the School District chose to comply by requiring teacher-led recital of the Pledge of Allegiance by willing students. Thus, we have three levels of popular government-the national, the state, and the local-collaborating to produce the Elk Grove ceremony. The Constitution only requires that schoolchildren be entitled to abstain from the ceremony if they chose to do so. To give the parent of such a child a sort of "heckler's veto" over a patriotic ceremony willingly participated in by other students, simply because the Pledge of Allegiance contains the descriptive phrase "under God," is an unwarranted extension of the Establishment Clause, an extension which would have the unfortunate effect of prohibiting a commendable patriotic observance.
I join the concurrence of The Chief Justice in full. But while the history presented by The Chief Justice illuminates the constitutional problems this case presents, I write separately to explain the principles that guide my own analysis of the constitutionality of that policy....There are no de minimis violations of the Constitution- no constitutional harms so slight that the courts are obliged to ignore them. Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve, however, I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution. This category of "ceremonial deism" most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto ("In God We Trust"), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as the Star-Spangled Banner, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions ("God save the United States and this honorable Court"). These references are not minor trespasses upon the Establishment Clause to which I turn a blind eye. Instead, their history, character, and context prevent them from being constitutional violations at all.
This case requires us to determine whether the appearance of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance constitutes an instance of such ceremonial deism. Although it is a close question, I conclude that it does...., based on my evaluation of the following four factors.
History and Ubiquity
The constitutional value of ceremonial deism turns on a shared understanding of its legitimate nonreligious purposes. That sort of understanding can exist only when a given practice has been in place for a significant portion of the Nation's history, and when it is observed by enough persons that it can fairly be called ubiquitous....
Absence of worship or prayer
"[O]ne of the greatest dangers to
the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way [lies] in the
Government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular
kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services." Because of this principle,
only in the most extraordinary circumstances could actual worship or
prayer be defended as ceremonial deism....
"The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another." While general acknowledgments of religion need not be viewed by reasonable observers as denigrating the nonreligious, the same cannot be said of instances "where the endorsement is sectarian, in the sense of specifying details upon which men and women who believe in a benevolent, omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the world are known to differ." As a result, no religious acknowledgment could claim to be an instance of ceremonial deism if it explicitly favored one particular religious belief system over another....
Minimal religious content
A final factor that makes the Pledge an instance of ceremonial deism, in my view, is its highly circumscribed reference to God. In most of the cases in which we have struck down government speech or displays under the Establishment Clause, the offending religious content has been much more pervasive....
The reference to "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance qualifies as a minimal reference to religion; respondent's challenge focuses on only two of the Pledge's 31 words. Moreover, the presence of those words is not absolutely essential to the Pledge, as demonstrated by the fact that it existed without them for over 50 years. As a result, students who wish to avoid saying the words "under God" still can consider themselves meaningful participants in the exercise if they join in reciting the remainder of the Pledge....
I have framed my inquiry as a specific application of the endorsement test by examining whether the ceremony or representation would convey a message to a reasonable observer, familiar with its history, origins, and context, that those who do not adhere to its literal message are political outsiders. But consideration of these factors would lead me to the same result even if I were to apply the "coercion" test that has featured in several opinions of this Court.
The coercion test provides that, "at a minimum ... government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which 'establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.' " Any coercion that persuades an onlooker to participate in an act of ceremonial deism is inconsequential, as an Establishment Clause matter, because such acts are simply not religious in character. As a result, symbolic references to religion that qualify as instances of ceremonial deism will pass the coercion test as well as the endorsement test. This is not to say, however, that government could overtly coerce a person to participate in an act of ceremonial deism. Our cardinal freedom is one of belief; leaders in this Nation cannot force us to proclaim our allegiance to any creed, whether it be religious, philosophic, or political. That principle found eloquent expression in a case involving the Pledge itself, even before it contained the words to which respondent now objects. The compulsion of which Justice Jackson was concerned, however, was of the direct sort-the Constitution does not guarantee citizens a right entirely to avoid ideas with which they disagree. It would betray its own principles if it did; no robust democracy insulates its citizens from views that they might find novel or even inflammatory.Michael Newdow's challenge to petitioner school district's policy is a well-intentioned one, but his distaste for the reference to "one Nation under God," however sincere, cannot be the yardstick of our Establishment Clause inquiry. Certain ceremonial references to God and religion in our Nation are the inevitable consequence of the religious history that gave birth to our founding principles of liberty. It would be ironic indeed if this Court were to wield our constitutional commitment to religious freedom so as to sever our ties to the traditions developed to honor it. *
We granted certiorari in this case to decide whether the Elk Grove Unified School District's Pledge policy violates the Constitution. The answer to that question is: "no." But in a testament to the condition of our Establishment Clause jurisprudence, the Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion based on a persuasive reading of our precedent, especially Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 (1992). In my view, Lee adopted an expansive definition of "coercion" that cannot be defended however one decides the "difficult question" of "[w]hether and how th[e Establishment] Clause should constrain state action under the Fourteenth Amendment." The difficulties with our Establishment Clause cases, however, run far deeper than Lee.
Because I agree with The Chief
Justice that respondent Newdow has standing, I would take this
opportunity to begin the process of rethinking the Establishment
Clause. I would acknowledge that the Establishment Clause is a
federalism provision, which, for this reason, resists incorporation.
Moreover, as I will explain, the Pledge policy is not implicated by any
sensible incorporation of the Establishment Clause, which would
probably cover little more than the Free Exercise Clause.
Adherence to Lee would require us to strike down the Pledge policy, which, in most respects, poses more serious difficulties than the prayer at issue in Lee. A prayer at graduation is a one-time event, the graduating students are almost (if not already) adults, and their parents are usually present. By contrast, very young students, removed from the protection of their parents, are exposed to the Pledge each and every day.
Moreover, this case is more troubling than Lee with respect to both kinds of "coercion." First, although students may feel "peer pressure" to attend their graduations, the pressure here is far less subtle: Students are actually compelled (that is, by law, and not merely "in a fair and real sense") to attend school.
Analysis of the second form of "coercion" identified in Lee is somewhat more complicated. It is true that since this Court decided West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, States cannot compel (in the traditional sense) students to pledge their allegiance. Formally, then, dissenters can refuse to pledge, and this refusal would be clear to onlookers. That is, students have a theoretical means of opting out of the exercise. But as Lee indicated: "Research in psychology supports the common assumption that adolescents are often susceptible to pressure from their peers towards conformity ... ." On Lee's reasoning, Barnette's protection is illusory, for government officials can allow children to recite the Pledge and let peer pressure take its natural and predictable course. Further, even if we assume that sitting in respectful silence could be mistaken for assent to or participation in a graduation prayer, dissenting students graduating from high school are not "coerced" to pray. At most, they are "coerced" into possibly appearing to assent to the prayer. The "coercion" here, however, results in unwilling children actually pledging their allegiance....I conclude that, as a matter of our precedent, the Pledge policy is unconstitutional. I believe, however, that Lee was wrongly decided. Lee depended on a notion of "coercion" that, as I discuss below, has no basis in law or reason. The kind of coercion implicated by the Religion Clauses is that accomplished "by force of law and threat of penalty." Peer pressure, unpleasant as it may be, is not coercion. But rejection of Lee-style "coercion" does not suffice to settle this case. Although children are not coerced to pledge their allegiance, they are legally coerced to attend school. Because what is at issue is a state action, the question becomes whether the Pledge policy implicates a religious liberty right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
I accept that the Free Exercise Clause, which clearly protects an individual right, applies against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. But the Establishment Clause is another matter. The text and history of the Establishment Clause strongly suggest that it is a federalism provision intended to prevent Congress from interfering with state establishments. Thus, unlike the Free Exercise Clause, which does protect an individual right, it makes little sense to incorporate the Establishment Clause. In any case, I do not believe that the Pledge policy infringes any religious liberty right that would arise from incorporation of the Clause. Because the Pledge policy also does not infringe any free-exercise rights, I conclude that it is constitutional.
The Establishment Clause provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." As a textual matter, this Clause probably prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion. Perhaps more importantly, the Clause made clear that Congress could not interfere with state establishments, notwithstanding any argument that could be made based on Congress' power under the Necessary and Proper Clause.
Nothing in the text of the Clause suggests that it reaches any further. The Establishment Clause does not purport to protect individual rights. By contrast, the Free Exercise Clause plainly protects individuals against congressional interference with the right to exercise their religion, and the remaining Clauses within the First Amendment expressly disable Congress from "abridging [particular] freedom[s]." This textual analysis is consistent with the prevailing view that the Constitution left religion to the States.
Quite simply, the Establishment Clause is best understood as a federalism provision-it protects state establishments from federal interference but does not protect any individual right. These two features independently make incorporation of the Clause difficult to understand....
I would welcome the opportunity to consider more fully the difficult questions whether and how the Establishment Clause applies against the States. One observation suffices for now: As strange as it sounds, an incorporated Establishment Clause prohibits exactly what the Establishment Clause protected-state practices that pertain to "an establishment of religion." At the very least, the burden of persuasion rests with anyone who claims that the term took on a different meaning upon incorporation. We must therefore determine whether the Pledge policy pertains to an "establishment of religion."
"The coercion that was a hallmark of historical establishments of religion was coercion of religious orthodoxy and of financial support by force of law and threat of penalty. Typically, attendance at the state church was required; only clergy of the official church could lawfully perform sacraments; and dissenters, if tolerated, faced an array of civil disabilities....
It is difficult to see how
government practices that have nothing to do with creating or
maintaining the sort of coercive state establishment described above
implicate the possible liberty interest of being free from coercive
state establishments. In addressing the constitutionality of voluntary
school prayer, Justice Stewart made essentially this point, emphasizing
that "we deal here not with the establishment of a state church, ...
but with whether school children who want to begin their day by joining
in prayer must be prohibited from doing so."