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'One nation' - but under what?

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Advocates of a high wall say that government should maintain strict separation in matters of faith and leave to the clergy and the people any use of religious words, symbols, or messages. Government entanglement in matters of faith taint and cheapen what should be private and sacred, they say.

"When you make the argument that this [reference to God in the Pledge] is no longer religious but is civil, or political, or patriotic in its orientation, you are trivializing religion. You are trivializing the meaning of God," says Derek Davis, director of the Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. "One of the reasons for the separation of church and state is it allows religion to operate freely of [government] so it maintains its sacredness."

It is in this broader context that the dispute over the Pledge of Allegiance arrives at the nation's highest court.

Specifically at issue before the court is whether a policy at the Elk Grove Unified School District in California requiring public school teachers to lead their students in the Pledge each morning amounts to an unconstitutional attempt by the government to indoctrinate impressionable young children with religious dogma. Michael Newdow of Sacramento, Calif., an atheist, filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent his daughter from having to recite the Pledge each morning. A federal judge threw the case out, but a federal appeals court panel agreed with Mr. Newdow, ruling that the school policy amounted to unconstitutional religious coercion by the government.

Newdow's case is further complicated over issues about whether he had proper legal standing to file the suit in the first place. Newdow is not married to his daughter's mother. The mother, Sandra Banning, is raising her daughter as a Christian, and neither mother nor daughter objects to reciting the Pledge. In addition, the family court in California has awarded exclusive authority to Ms. Banning to decide religious and educational issues in her daughter's upbringing.

In urging dismissal of the Newdow suit, lawyers for the school district, the US solicitor general, and Banning argue that since Newdow has no legal right to decide the religious upbringing of his daughter, he has suffered no legal injury from her recitation of the Pledge each morning.

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