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Published: Sunday, 6/30/2002

Patriotism, even without the words

Some items while wondering how many letters with 34-cent stamps will be deposited in mailboxes over the next few days:

MINORITY REPORT: I've never seen so many people rush to drape themselves in the American flag as I did Wednesday after a federal appeals court ruled that saying the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional because the “under God” portion improperly endorses religion.

Members of the House of Representatives reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on the steps of the Capitol? Pardon me if I thought they were motivated by politics instead of patriotism. The U.S. Senate was just as bold, voting 99-0 on a resolution condemning the hours-old ruling. Anyone voting against the resolution would have risked committing political suicide.

It's a good thing that I don't plan on running for political office. Otherwise, this column would come back to haunt me.

Why? Because I agree with the court's decision.

For those about to cop a holier-than-thou/more-patriotic-than-thou attitude toward me, please understand that I have no problem with “under God” being part of the Pledge of Allegiance. I can live with it, and I can live without it. To me, it doesn't pass the practicality test: I can count on one hand the number of times I've recited the pledge since elementary school.

I do realize, however, that this is more of a symbolic fight than one about practicality. (The ruling doesn't affect Ohio; it covers only nine Western states.) Unlike some of you, I don't see this as a “slippery slope”-type issue, where government-sanctioned God references sprinkled throughout everyday life will be challenged. But if they are challenged, so be it. This is America. I'm fairly certain “In God We Trust” will be on our currency for the rest of our lifetimes, aren't you?

Below are the two main reasons why I agree with the court ruling. The common thread: Religion is intensely personal and it has nothing to do with the government's mission.

Reason No. 1: The original Pledge of Allegiance, which was written in 1892 by a Baptist minister, did not include “under God” - those words were added by Congress some 62 years later.

Politicians love to talk about the wisdom of those who came before us, yet in 1954 Congress conveniently ignored it. The government should have left the original pledge alone - its message was every bit as patriotic as the current version.

Reason No. 2: According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 14 percent of Americans have no religion. (They identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, humanist, or secular.)

Collectively, these 29 million people form a formidable “minority” group. Their percentage of the U.S. population is higher than that of African-Americans or Latinos. In today's society, we'd like to think that the government wouldn't do anything to alienate either of those ethnic groups (or any ethnic group, for that matter). Yet that's exactly what it's doing to people who have no religion.

Whether intentional or not, the government has made religion a litmus test for being a patriotic American.

TWIN PACK: Two slant-free questions this week. To commemorate our nation's birthday, all e-mail participants will receive 226 points. (Note: Click on the link below and check out reader response to last week's questions.)

1) Fear factor: What is your level of angst regarding the possibility of a large-scale terrorist attack on July 4?

2) Mideast turmoil: What is your level of confidence regarding the success of President Bush's plan for Palestinian statehood?

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