The “Under God” and Chaplaincy Plaintiff Speaks Out
Why did I do it? The answer is easy: our current system is wrong. We have rules, and we’re supposed to abide by them, but we haven’t been abiding by them at all in the arena of the relationship between government and citizens. We’ve taken a purely religious ideal—one that millions of Americans expressly deny—and incorporated it into our government. Such activity is expressly pro hibited by our Constitution. This is my country just as much as it is anyone else’s, and I demand from my government the same respect for my views regarding religion that is given to those with alternative ideals. I’m not someone the majority “tolerates.” I don’t thank the masses for “allowing” me to not worship as I please. I am not a second-class citizen who should be seen and not heard.
The United States of America is just as much an atheistic entity as it is a theistic entity, with zero being the measure of each. When Congress placed “In God We Trust” on all our coins and currency, when it inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, when the Supreme Court starts its sessions with “God save the United States and this honor-able court,” when presidents take their oaths of office with chaplains offering prayers to God, when every legislative session begins with a prayer to God—and on and on—those who disbelieve in a supreme being are explicitly told that “they are outsiders, not full members of the political community,”while theistic Americans are told “that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” That language—repeated time and again by the Supreme Court in describing Establishment Clause violations—details exactly what has been occurring with increasing frequency in our society. The responses of our legislators and our president in the aftermath of the Pledge case decision serve only to highlight the depth of the constitutional transgression.
This is a civil rights campaign, as important and as serious as any in our history. To be sure, other politically disenfranchised minorities—such as women, people of color, and the disabled—have the added burden of physical attributes that make them immediately identifiable. Yet the biases and prejudices each class has endured are little different. Government cannot eliminate invidious opinions, but it can—and, when the opinions are based on religious differences, it constitutionally must—stop fostering such beliefs. We greatly improved our society when we altered our laws to stop encouraging racial segregation, barring women from the work-place, and ignoring the disabled. The goal of the Pledge lawsuit is only to attain further improvement.
In 1958, a Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of our citizens would not vote for a Black candidate for president merely on the basis of race. In 1999, the last time the poll was taken, the figure was 4 percent. For Catholics, Jews, and women, the latest “would not vote for” figures were 4 percent, 6 percent, and 7 percent, respectively. Yet when it came to atheists, that 1999 poll showed that 48 percent of Americans still would not vote for someone merely on that religious basis. In my opinion, this sort of prejudice is in no small measure perpetuated when our government tells everyone with a coin in his or her pocket that our nation officially, openly—even proudly—pro-claims that disrespecting atheists is fine.
Could my quest for equality backfire? Absolutely. I have little doubt that the coffers of the pro-God activists have been significantly enriched as a result of the Pledge litigation, and we’ve already
heard calls to place God into our Constitution. Yes, the official antipathy towards atheistic Americans may grow to even greater levels, and even more blatant discrimination may ensue.
But the same possibility of failure was present in the past civil rights campaigns. Thus I’m optimistic and planning on ultimate success. As Americans now opposed to these changes start to appreciate the plight of atheists, I hope they will increase their understanding of religious freedom. As we’ve seen with Brown v. Board of Education, the Nineteenth Amendment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, when government no longer supports a pervasive personal prejudice, that personal prejudice becomes less pervasive. When our laws recognize that atheists can be role models as positive and strong as Americans of any other life stance, we will further promote the diversity that has so benefited our society. The possibility of an African-American, female, or disabled individual being elected president is no longer remote. The same can be, should be—and, I hope, soon will be—the case for one who is atheistic.
Michael Newdow, M.D., is an atheist activist. He brought the initially successful lawsuit challenging the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and has since sued to abolish tax-payer-funded chaplaincies in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.