By Rob Boston
It must be hard to be a non-believer in Texas. Not only do you have to put up with the bizarre antics of the fundamentalist-dominated State Board of Education, but now you can’t even express your support for the state without also affirming the existence of God.
In 2007, Texas legislators modified the state’s pledge of allegiance to include the phrase “under God.” (Yep, it’s hard to believe, but until just three years ago, the entire state of Texas was officially heathen!)
The Texas Pledge of Allegiance used to read, “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one and indivisible.”
Since June of 2007, it has read, “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”
Young people do apparently recite this in some Texas schools. Some parents filed suit, charging a violation of separation of church and state. Last week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them.
The court applied the same argument that the U.S. Supreme Court had adopted with the national Pledge: It’s not a violation of the First Amendment for schools to recite it, but no student can be coerced to say it.
The court also made another familiar argument – that the pledge is really just a patriotic exercise that just happens to contain a reference to God.
“The pledge is a patriotic exercise, and it is made no less so by the acknowledgment of Texas’s religious heritage via the inclusion of the phrase ‘under God,’” asserted the court. “A pledge can constitutionally acknowledge the existence of, and even value, a religious belief without impermissibly favoring that value or belief, without advancing belief over non-belief, and without coercing participation in a religious exercise. Texas’s pledge is of this sort and consequently survives this challenge.”
I can almost see the judges tying themselves in knots when they came up with this one. So we’re to believe that a declaration by a state that it is “under God” doesn’t really favor or value that belief? So if the state of Texas had declared itself “under Zeus,” they wouldn’t really be saying that they like Zeus more than any other deity or even non-deity, right?
The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that government is not supposed to favor belief over non-belief – at least, that’s the legal fiction that exists on paper. In the real world, government favors belief pretty much constantly, and most courts have turned a blind eye to this practice.
The prevailing standard seems to be that there exists a generic, watered-down, nebulous concept called “God,” and as long as we don’t get too specific about what this means, what its properties may be and refrain from tying it to a specific denomination, government can invoke it all of time – in a purely non-religious and ceremonial context, of course.
This is the canned-peas religion of “ceremonial deism” that has been foisted on us by the courts. Funny, but I thought the First Amendment stood for no government endorsement of religion. And “ceremonial deism,” even if it is as bland as unsalted crackers, sure sounds like a religion to me.
All Texans should be able to express their love and support for their state without also making a religious declaration. The appeals court has made that impossible, which is a shame.
P.S. When I read about this ruling, I got to thinking of Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas. Austin advocated for church-state separation as he built the Texas colony when it was still part of Mexico. Shortly before his death in 1836 he wrote, “The prosperity of Texas has been the object of my labors, the idol of my existence – it has assumed the character of a religion, for the guidance of my thoughts and actions, for fifteen years.” Several sources online list his religion as “none.” Of course, none of this means Austin was a non-believer – but I do wonder what he would think of a decision like this. Would Austin feel comfortable today living in the state he founded?