Speaking the Truth

Gary is an author, trial lawyer, Mequon-area resident and town of Cedarburg supervisor. He is a columnist for the News Graphic and writes for several Wisconsin area magazines and is a national columnist with The American Thinker and PJ Media.  He lives with his wife, Lisa, and has three sons ages 18 to 28. Gary won Ozaukee County in his bid for the Wisconsin Assembly's 60th District in 2011, but came up just 58 votes short.


          Ozaukee County is a magical place to live. It is a community whose residents understand, care about and practice things like civic responsibility, tough love, the gift of giving, the art of listening, patriotism, fairness, loving your neighbor, and the importance of free enterprise. It is a place where the privilege and responsibility of being a parent is taken seriously and worked at diligently; a place where many of our children still walk to school - yes, even when it’s cold. Family is priority.

Ozaukee County is a community whose roads are not more heavily traveled at midnight on Saturday evening than at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. It is perhaps one of the last bastions of our country where the commercial aspects of Christmas haven’t eclipsed the Reason for the Season. Residents wish each other a Merry Christmas – and nobody is offended. You notice these things if you move here from Wauwatosa or Shorewood, but that really hits you over the head if you move here from another state – or country. It is almost like going back in time, to another place, to another era where things seemed simpler and friendlier. It is America at its finest, and for many of us, it is why we live here.

          Within Ozaukee County, the Town of Cedarburg opens its Town Board meetings with a pledge of allegiance to a nation “under God”. Everyone stands. We face the flag. Hands are placed over hearts. It makes this Town Board member feel like a citizen of a very special place. In Estes Park, Colorado, a community identical in size to Cedarburg, a board member who refused to stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance during Town Board meetings due to a conflict he had with the words, “under God,” was recalled. Councilman David Habecker maintained that the Pledge constituted a violation of the “separation of church and state.” Elsewhere, grade school students at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Junior High School in northwestern Minnesota were suspended for sitting during the Pledge. They gave no reason.

          A quick history lesson is in order. The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister. Bellamy’s original Pledge read as follows: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, onenation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Bellamy considered placing the word, 'equality,' in his Pledge, but knew that the state superintendents of education on his committee were not keen on equality for women and AfricanAmericans. Bellamy circulated material which read, “Let the flag float over every school-house in the land and the exercise be such as shall impress upon our youth the patriotic duty of citizenship.” On Columbus Day in October 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance was repeated by more than 12 million public school children throughout the country.

Fast forward to the year 1940. Lillian and William Gobitis, two Jehovah’s Witness siblings from Minersville, Pennsylvania, filed suit after being expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. At that time the Pledge didn’t even contain the words, “under God.” Interestingly, in those days, the flag salute began with the hand over the heart and then, as the person began reciting the words “to the flag”, the arm would be extended, palm upwards, toward the flag. This gesture, which had been in place since the 1890’s, was later eliminated because of its similarity to the Nazi salute. The Gobitis siblings refused to salute the flag because it conflicted with their Jehovah’s Witness understanding of Exodus 20 – that one should not worship or bow down to any “graven image” of God. The Supreme Court held that the compelled flag salute did not infringe on religious liberty.

Three years later, however, the Gobitis decision was overturned in the Court’s 1943 decision in West Virginia v. Barnette. A West Virginia statute, which had been enacted specifically because of the Gobitis decision, required recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, and punished unwilling students with expulsion and their parents with fines and possible jail time. The Court reversed itself, holding that a state could not compel students to say the Pledge. National unity could be fostered by persuasion, but not by compulsion.

          In 1951, the Knights of Columbus adopted a resolution to amend the Pledge of Allegiance as recited at their assemblies by adding the words "under God." The addition was inspired by the closing portion of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” In 1954, a total of seventeen resolutions were introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives to similarly amend the Pledge of Allegiance. One was adopted by both Houses of Congress, and it was signed by President Eisenhower on Flag Day, June 14, 1954, who publicly thanked the Knights of Columbus.

          There were few problems with the word “God” in our Pledge, until 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to not only declare the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, but also our many references to “In God We Trust” on our money and public buildings. In County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union,the Court decided that it is only government’s allegiance to a particular sect, denomination or creed that is prohibited by the First Amendment. While government may not display the Christian manger scene, it may open the Supreme Court and Congress with a nonsectarian prayer, declare a National Day of Prayer, refer to God on its coins and money, and include the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

In 2000. Atheist Michael Newdow, a California physician with a law degree, a five-year-old daughter in the Elk Grove school system, and an axe to grind with monotheistic religion, decided he wasn't happy about students at his daughter's school standing to say the Pledge each morning, even though students were allowed to opt out. Newdow challenged the law and the circus known as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared our Pledge of Allegiance to be unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court quickly overturned the controversial decision.

The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first portion is known as the “establishment clause”, and the second, as the “free exercise” clause. These clauses were designed to harmonize, but they frequently conflict. The free exercise clause guarantees citizens the right to freely exercise their religious beliefs, or not. It forbids the outlawing of any religious belief, but not necessarily conduct related to those beliefs, such as polygamy, the avoidance of secular education by the Amish, wearing yarmulkes in the military, and certain types of discrimination.

On the other hand, the establishment clause prohibits the government from setting up an official state church, forcing or influencing a person to go to or remain away from church against his or her will, or forcing anyone to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.

As you can see, the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the First Amendment – or anywhere else in the Constitution for that matter. The phrase comes from a January 1, 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. Connecticut still had religion taxes and the Baptists were objecting. They wrote to Jefferson because they knew he understood their concerns. In his reply, written from France, Jefferson merely referenced “building a wall of separation between Church and State”. He didn’t say how high the wall would be.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist – a Wisconsin native - has written opinions stating, “The 'wall of separation between church and State' is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and specifically abandoned.” But the metaphor stuck, and is often inaccurately cited as a license to keep God out of the public eye.

          Freedom is a marvelous thing. If David Habecker doesn’t want to stand up during the Pledge, he is free not to. At the same time, the residents of Estes Park are free to vote him out of office for refusing to do so. As I stand before each Town of Cedarburg Board meeting, with my hand over my heart, proudly reciting the words “one nation, under God”, I do not do so in derogation of or with animosity toward my Jewish, Muslim, or atheist friends and fellow citizens. Rather, I do so, knowing that regardless of whose sensibilities might be “offended” by my exercise of this right, I enjoy the freedom, protected by the Constitution, to acknowledge the Creator of the universe as the benefactor of this great country and my community here in Ozaukee County. And I do so confident in the simple but often-misunderstood legal truth that the First Amendment grants all of us the freedom of religion, but guarantees none of us a freedom from religion.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one nation, under God, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all."

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