LOS ANGELES — A divided federal appeals court Thursday reversed itself, ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't violate the constitutional prohibition against state-mandated religious exercise even though it contains the phrase "one nation under God."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2002, which deemed that requiring students to recite the pledge violated their rights to be free of religious indoctrination by the government, was one of the most controversial to come out of the court that is second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in its power to determine law for nine Western states and two Pacific territories.
The appeals court's earlier decision had been reviewed by the Supreme Court in 2004, but the justices dodged the constitutional question on procedural grounds, throwing out the lawsuit brought by a Sacramento, Calif., atheist and leaving intact the wording of the patriotic declaration.
Also decided Thursday was a challenge brought by the same plaintiff, Michael Newdow, to the phrase "In God We Trust" printed on the nation's money. The same three-judge panel ruled that an earlier case had found the phrase to be a national motto and that its placement on U.S. coins and currency wasn't required by any government statute.
The Establishment Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment prohibits the enactment of a law or official policy that establishes a religion or religious faith. The 9th Circuit's earlier ruling that the pledge unconstitutionally included "under God" stirred nationwide controversy and exposed Newdow, a physician and lawyer, to virulent scorn for attacking the religious references.
In Thursday's ruling, written by Judge Carlos T. Bea, an appointee of President George W. Bush, the judges ruled 2-1 that Newdow and others who joined his lawsuit didn't have standing to challenge the 1954 amendment to the pledge adding the words "under God" because no federal statute requires them to recite it.
Senior Circuit Judge Dorothy W. Nelson joined Bea in the ruling, but Judge Stephen Reinhardt dissented, writing that "the state-directed, teacher-led daily recitation in public schools of the amended 'under God' version of the Pledge of Allegiance ... violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution."
Nelson and Reinhardt were both appointed to the court by President Jimmy Carter.