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Lonely Votes for Church-State Separation | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Lonely Votes for Church-State Separation

Anyone searching for hypocrites on issues of prayer and patriotism would be well advised to begin the hunt on Capitol Hill.

On most days when Congress is in session, the overwhelming majority of members cannot be bothered to show up for the morning prayers and patriotic pronouncements that open the House and Senate. However, after a pair of senior jurists on the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals questioned the Constitutionality of laws requiring schools to organize recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance -- with its "one nation under God" line -- it became clear that political points could be scored with shows of national pride and piety. So Congress' sunshine patriots and preachers came rushing into the Capitol.

All but a handful of members of Senate crowded the Senate floor Thursday to listen to the usually neglected prayer and to join in a fumbling recitation of the Pledge. Over in the House chamber, members gathered to chant the Pledge -- with many shouting the phrase "under God!" The lawmakers gave themselves a two-minute standing ovation before breaking into an off-key rendering of the song "God Bless America."

This was all for show. The real action came in the form of votes on legislation condemning the appeals court ruling. The Senate voted 99-0 in favor of a long-winded resolution that started by recalling the embarkation of the Pilgrims and ended up by declaring, "The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals erroneously held, in Newdow v. U.S. Congress, (9th Cir. June 26, 2002) that the Pledge of Allegiance's use of the express religious reference `under God' violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that, therefore, a school district's policy and practice of teacher-led voluntary recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional." Only ailing Senator Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, missed the vote.

In the House, where the "emergency" legislation was introduced by Judiciary Committee chair F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, the vote was 416-3 in favor of a differently worded but similarly intended condemnation of the court's decision. (Ironically, the House bill, which was passed amid much over-the-top speechifying about the role of the Almightly in all things American, included the line: "Whereas the Pledge of Allegiance is not a prayer or a religious practice, the recitation of the pledge is not a religious exercise...")

The three House members who voted "no" were veteran California Democrat Fortney "Pete" Stark, five-term Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott and first-term California Democrat Mike Honda.

Stark, one of the most outspoken members of the House, was blunt about why he opposed the bill. "While I don't oppose anyone reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I think it was wrong to add the words 'under God' to the original pledge in 1954," he said. "I believe the phrase does not accommodate the diversity of religious and personal beliefs in our nation as the Constitution requires." Like Scott, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who has in recent years emerged as one the House's most consistent defenders of civil liberties, Stark has frequently cast lonely votes against the Congressional consensus.

Honda, a freshman lawmaker, explained his opposition in terms of his concern for religious minorities and his sense that the "one nation under God" line makes a law mandating recitation of the Pledge an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. "Everyone should be able to practice their religion without a lot of interference from the state," explained Honda. "If it's patriotic, then we should be pledging allegiance just to our country. But our country is based on pluralism. It's based on freedom of religion and not having religion imposed on other folks."

Like Scott, an African-American who grew up in the segregated south, Honda's concern for protecting religious, racial and ethnic minorities is rooted in personal experience. A California native of Japanese-American descent, he spent some of his childhood in an internment camp in Colorado during World War II.

The eleven members of the House who voted "present" were all Democrats: Gary Ackerman (New York), Earl Blumenauer (Oregon), Michael Capuano (Massachusetts), Barney Frank (Massachusetts), Luis Gutierrez (Illinois), Alcee Hastings (Florida), Jim McDermott (Washington), Jerrold Nadler (New York), James Oberstar (Minnesota), Nydia Velazquez (New York) and Mel Watt (North Carolina). Nadler is the ranking Democrat on the House Judicary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution. Frank and Watt also sit on that subcommittee.

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