When the nation's Founding Fathers declared their independence from England in 1776, they stressed that their actions were authorized by a higher authority than even the king himself.
They based this revolutionary credo on their understanding that the fundamental rights of men did not flow from man-made institutions. Rather, those rights flowed from what they saw as deeper truths - "That all men are created equal," and "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
To those who signed the Declaration of Independence, these "truths" were self-evident.
Now, 228 years later, the US Supreme Court is at the center of a debate - over the Pledge of Allegiance - that suggests such views about the religious underpinnings of American government may no longer be self-evident.
Indeed, government attempts to highlight religious concepts may be unconstitutional. At issue is whether the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge - as recited by schoolchildren nationwide - amounts to a violation of the separation of church and state. The case, set to be argued Wednesday at the Supreme Court, cuts to the heart of a long-running dispute over how best to preserve and protect religious liberty.
It also raises a more fundamental question: Why would America's Founding Fathers, who wrote so eloquently of their "firm reliance on the protection of divine providence" in the Declaration of Independence, use not a single devotional word or phrase in the Constitution and Bill of Rights?
Instead, the First Amendment forbids any law "respecting an establishment of religion." Courts have interpreted that provision as mandating a "wall" between church and state. But justices, judges, lawyers, scholars, political leaders, and members of the clergy differ over how high or low that wall should be.
Those favoring a relatively low wall point to the national motto "In God We Trust" on the nation's money as an example of a government reference to God that does not violate the framers' intentions in erecting the church-state divide. They also point to the opening announcement at the US Supreme Court, "God save the United States and this honorable court."
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