National Symbols

Legal scholars have continued to dissect Supreme Court decisions to reach some palpable and instructive guidance in matters relating to the separation of church and state when it involves national symbols created by colonial Americans and steeped in historical symbolism. U.S. currency carries the motto “In God We Trust,” and most school students (at least in the elementary grades) begin each day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to “one nation, under God.” Each meeting of the U.S. Congress begins with an invocation, which the Supreme Court found quite permissible, since the very first Congress paid a chaplain to provide an opening prayer.

Most legal authorities distinguish a general acknowledgement of God from the acknowledgement of a particular religious belief. They also make the distinction between invocations at the commencement of a congressional session, attended by adults, and school prayer, which may involve teachers and other students exerting influence over children more vulnerable to external suggestion or example.

In West Virginia Board Of Educ. v. Barnette (1943), the parents of Jehovah’s Witnesses school children brought suit after their children were expelled from West Virginia public schools. A tenet of that faith is the commandment against bowing down to “graven images,” which practitioners believe forbids them to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to one nation, under God. The West Virginia Board of Education defended that the children who refused to recite the Pledge disrupted the order and discipline of the classroom, which the board had a responsibility to maintain. The U.S. Supreme Court, reversing an earlier decision that resulted in gross harassment toward Witnesses, ruled that the expulsion of the chil-dren was an unjustified intrusion upon their religious freedom and was tantamount to a governmental censure of their religious beliefs.

In 2004, the issue again came before the Court in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow. However, the Court dismissed this case on the issue of standing, without ever reaching the substantive issue. Nevertheless, its decision served to reverse a trial court decision that teacher-led recitation of the Pledge was unconstitutional. The case had been brought by an atheist who objected to his daughter having to listen to “one nation under God” in the Pledge. Since the divorced plaintiff did not have custody of his daughter, the Court ruled he had no standing and could not speak for his daughter in court.

Inside National Symbols