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Friday, June 28, 2002

“Under God” is Un-American

by Jim Heldberg, Pacifica, 28 June 2002
President, Pacifica Democrats and Coordinator, San Francisco Atheists

We’re all born as Atheists. Many of us stay Atheists. Some choose Atheism after trying something else.

About 1 in 7 Americans are religion-free, according to the latest and most complete survey. If we were a religion, we’d be one of the largest.

About 6 in 7 Americans choose religion, whether brand C, H, I, J or any other major or off-brand.

That’s American freedom of religion. Our Constitution says our government won’t get involved in religion. It says government will govern, not preach. If we had obeyed our Constitution in 1954, we wouldn’t be arguing about the Pledge of Allegiance today.

In all the distracting smoke, we should remember that the Pledge isn’t a legal document. It is a custom. It is powerful poetry, written by a private citizen to express his dedication and pride. Interestingly, the author didn’t think religion belonged in it. Federal bureaucrats have altered it twice, reducing its poetic and universal value, but it has become an American tradition. Surprisingly, it is both embraced and shunned for religious reasons.

America lived without a Pledge for half its life, surviving a civil war that nearly killed our country. During the first half of the Pledge’s life, before “under god” was added, America survived 2 World Wars and a crushing Depression. Obviously, America doesn’t need to be “under” anything, whether kings or gods, real or imaginary.

Thomas Jefferson and the other American founders wanted a fresh start. They knew from their experiences in Europe and their own colonies how church and state could corrupt each other. They said “NO” to religion in the very first item of the Bill of Rights.

Saying “NO” to religion was also done for a very practical reason. The founders wanted to get the new Constitution adopted quickly so they could prepare for war, and they knew that religious arguments never end. If Maryland had pushed for national Catholicism, Pennsylvania held firm for Lutheranism, and Rhode Island insisted on Quakerism, Great Britain would have us tithing to the Church of England.

Saying “NO” to religion has important practical benefits today, too. It encourages science. It attracts worldwide immigrant talent and energy. And it increases our international influence.

Our religion-free government is respected worldwide. Our religious neutrality gives America the capacity to act for human rights in the world, regardless of religions involved. We are strong when we are neutral, and weak when we choose sides in deadly fights over religion. A good referee doesn’t choose sides.

Unfortunately, our ill-informed president has chosen to take sides in the world’s oldest religious war, weakening both our national strength and worldwide respect.

If our government had stayed out of religion, Muslim maniacs might not have “praised allah” by leveling the World Trade Center. If our government had stayed out of religion, Jews might not have leveled Muslim Palestinian refugee camps. If our government had stayed out of religion, China might not have religiously persecuted its citizens. Even Hitler acted for strong religious reasons. Have we forgotten the horrors of the Inquisition, inflicted by governments controlled by religion? We must do better.

In this world of nuclear dangers, we need to minimize religion’s inherent divisiveness.

America must return to our “religiously neutral” position to regain respect at home and abroad. It is the law. It is our most important law. Anything less is illegal, as the court said.

It takes courage to stand for the law, when the public is filled with mindless religious fervor. But calm in the face of fervor is exactly why we have courts. We should applaud their sensible handling of this old mistake.

Atheists are patriots, too. Our dedication to American values is undiluted by religion. I’m a full-fledged American voter and veteran. I want to pledge allegiance to my country, not to someone else’s religion.

America’s pledge should include all Americans. All Americans, especially our younger people, fervently want us to fix this. Let’s make it legal again. Let’s use this opportunity to quickly return the Pledge of Allegiance to its original full-strength version, so all Americans can pledge proudly. Let’s be One Nation Indivisible, not divided factions fighting over illegal foolishness.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Letter to the Committee on Governmental Organization

June 18, 2002

Committee on Governmental Organization
California State Assembly
1020 "N" Street, Suite 156
Sacramento, California 95814

RE: SB 1577
Redesignation of State Holiday Tree as a Christmas Tree

American Atheists is opposed to SB 1577, which would redesignate the state's December holiday tree as an official Christmas tree. Such action would be a step backwards in recognizing California's diversity, would marginalize Atheists and other non-Christians who do not celebrate Christmas, and could open the state up to a legal challenge based on both state and federal constitutional provisions.

1. SB 1577 is a Step Backwards in Recognizing California's Diversity. When the state designated the December tree as a "holiday tree," it was a symbolic recognition that the winter holiday season is more than just Christmas, that the state's diverse population celebrates in a variety of ways, including Chanukah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, and the Winter Solstice. The citizens of California recognize and celebrate that diversity, and that spirit of tolerance and acceptance is very much a part of why California is a special place. SB 1577 is insensitive to California's rich diversity, and is simply out of step with the sensibilities of the state's population.

2. An Official State "Christmas Tree" would marginalize and insult Atheists and Others who Celebrate Non-Christian Holidays, particularly the Winter Solstice. As stated previously, the December season is more than just Christmas. Many Californians celebrate with non-Christian holidays, in particular the Winter Solstice.

According to the Julian calendar, December 25th is the Winter Solstice—the shortest day of the year. Pagans considered this day to be the "nativity" of the sun, when light began winning its battle against the increasing darkness. It has been celebrated throughout the history of humanity. While it was adopted by Christians as the birthday of their Christ, the ancient holiday survives to this day.

Many Atheists have embraced the Winter Solstice as a nonreligious celebration of nature and humanity that can be enjoyed by everyone. The Winter Solstice is also celebrated by pagans, Wicca's, Humanists, and others throughout the state.

One Winter Solstice custom dating back to ancient Egyptian and Roman times is the decoration of an evergreen tree, which symbolizes spring's promise to return. The "Solstice tree" was also adopted by Christians, who dubbed it a Christmas tree, but such a display is still recognized by many as a Solstice tree, as it was originally intended.

SB 1577 disregards and disrespects the chosen celebration of millions of Californians. (According to the latest ARIS survey, approximately 17 percent of California's population professes no religious beliefs.)

3. SB 1577 Promotes Christianity in Violation of Federal and State Constitutional Provisions, and Invites Litigation Against the State. Clearly, SB 1577 is intended to promote Christmas and its associated religion Christianity. Such action by the state would lose a legal challenge under both state and federal constitutional provisions.

Renaming the state holiday tree as a Christmas tree creates at a minimum the appearance of preference, and as such would violate the California Constitution's "no preference" clause (Article I, Section IV). Under federal First Amendment provisions, such action would violate at least two of the three prongs of the Supreme Court's Lemon test; such a state action could hardly be construed to have a secular purpose, and it would obviously advance a particular religious creed.

American Atheists is currently involved in two constitutional challenges in federal court, and would consider taking legal action on behalf of our California members if SB 1577 is approved.

For the above reasons, American Atheists is opposed to SB 1577. We strongly urge the Governmental Organization Committee to reject this proposal, which is insensitive to the state's rich diversity, insults celebrants of non-Christian winter holidays, including the winter solstice, and could involve the state in a costly legal challenge.


Dave Kong, State Director
American Atheists, Inc.