The inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is divisive and unfair, argued Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz in a standing room-only debate yesterday at Harvard Law School.
There should exist “a pledge to a nation united that does not also ask people to divisibly pledge to God,” he said.
Dershowitz faced off against Douglas Kmiec, a professor at Catholic University, over the interpretation of the Establishment Clause, which mandates a separation between church and state.
The debate centered on a decision handed down in June by California’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled in a 2-1 decision that Congress violated the Establishment Clause when it added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.
The decision drew a hail of criticism from the White House as well as the Senate, which voted 99-0 to condemn the ruling.
Dershowitz said that at the time Congress added “under God” to the pledge, he was an Orthodox Jew, and decided to stop saying the pledge.
“The God of the Pledge of Allegiance was not my God, was not even Jefferson’s God,” he said. “It was the God of a government that was fighting godless communists.”
But Kmiec said the phrase “under God” actually mitigates the power of the government by providing evidence that Americans believe in the existence of a supreme being more powerful than the state.
“The American government was founded on the individual dignity of the human being, and humans are endowed with rights by God which no one, including the government, can usurp,” Kmiec said.
Dershowitz said that even though the phrase “under God” does not refer to the god of a specific religion, it could easily be extended to a specific religion—and thereby constitute an impermissible government establishment of religion—if the wrong person or group took power.
“It worries me when we become like the Taliban,” Dershowitz said.
He said that while there are several instances in secular life where Americans are confronted with religion—for instance, “In God We Trust” is printed on all American currency—“many of these cases have no impact on human life.”
Yet in the case of the pledge, an adolescent must make the decision to stand and recite it or be ridiculed by his peers for “not believing in God,” Dershowitz said.
He cited a case in which a 17-year-old high school student refused to stand for the pledge and received death threats from fellow students.
Dershowitz concluded his speech by questioning whether those who do not believe in God are considered inferior American citizens to those who believe in a supreme being.