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Oh, it was red, white and blue exciting, the way the smiling superintendent of schools in Elk Grove, California, trotted out a batch of elementary school kids, one actually wrapped in the flag, to ritualistically recite the Pledge of Allegiance in celebration of the Supreme Court decision last month that rejected an Elk Grove parent's challenge that the pledge's claim of this as "one nation under God" is unconstitutional.

Oh, the children were so happy, breaking into a rousing rendition of "It';s a Grand Old Flag" after mouthing the words of the pledge beloved by all true patriots. The superintendent, Dave Gordon, presumably considers that to have been educational. But how educational is it, really, to require students who are too young to think critically for themselves to recite words expressing their elders' belief in a mythical being and pledging support for a government they may or may not want to support once they learn just what it is?

The court, of course, rejected the challenge of parent Michael Newdow on grounds that he lacked the legal standing to pursue the suit he filed on behalf of his elementary school daughter, since he had only limited custody of the child.

But a minority, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, took on the broader constitutional issue. Rehnquist, joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas, argued that the pledge's reference to God is perfectly legal because "our national culture allows public recognition of our nation's religious history and character."

Mr. Chief Justice Rehnquist is right. That, however, is precisely the problem -- that despite the separation of church and state promised in the Constitution, we are all of us like the captive audiences of unsuspecting elementary school children. We are all bombarded constantly with religious propaganda.

It should be obvious to those concerned with the realities of law rather than the fictions of religion that the need is not to retain the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance. The need is to remove the repeated references to God from the vocabularies of public officials who were elected to represent all of us, not just the religious majority.

The most recent surveys show that nearly 30 million Americans are atheists, agnostics or otherwise have no religion. Many of them have a moral code at least as strong as that of the religious, but they generally are seen by government officials and others as immoral. They are consistently treated as second-class citizens, their views, their very existence barely even acknowledged.

President Bush has typically declared that "Americans feel our reliance on the Creator who made us ... We received our rights from God" -- and apparently not from the Constitution. Before Bush, there was Bill Clinton telling Congress that "the will of God" required approval of his legislative proposals, the elder Bush insisting that "you cannot be president without believing in God," Jimmy Carter seeking "a partnership with God," Ronald Reagan attacking those who advocated government "grounded on reason rather than the law of God."

Bush and other political leaders rushed to denounce the lower court ruling that had held the words "under God" unconstitutional. It was a stunning display of political opportunism, pandering, posturing and hypocrisy rarely seen since the days of McCarthyism in the 1950s when politicians were forever denouncing Communists and their supporters, real and imagined. That's when "under God" was inserted into the pledge to differentiate the United States from the "Godless" Soviet Union.

The House and Senate passed measures condemning the court ruling, declaring that "under God" should remain in the pledge and "in God we trust" remain as the country's official motto, warbling stirring renditions of "God Bless America" and otherwise trying to show that, although elected by mere mortals, they answered to a higher authority, the Constitution be damned.

It was no coincidence that this enthusiastic bipartisan support of the religious beliefs held by a large majority of voters came almost on the eve of the 2002 congressional elections. That clearly illustrates why God will not be removed from our political debate, despite the urgent need to bring rationality into setting policies on abortion, gay rights and other important secular matters that often are determined by those who invoke God to justify their positions. No politician seeking majority support will dare challenge them, none will dare abandon their insulting, ritualistic and hypocritical references to the Almighty. For God is on the side of the majority.

Ironically, the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance originally was to help bring Americans together, whatever their political beliefs and whatever their religion or lack of it. The pledge, remember, promises "liberty and justice for all" - not just for those who can deliver the most votes.

Copyright Dick Meister