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Outrage Ignited on All Sides


THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE — They might as well have burned the flag--or at least stomped on it.

Wednesday's decision essentially barring that age-old American tradition, the Pledge of Allegiance, from the public classroom came less than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks and just in time for the Fourth of July.

Predictably, there were fireworks.

"This decision is ... just nuts," said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who fired a return salvo by asking all senators to be present this morning to recite the pledge en masse. Within hours, U.S. senators had voted 99 to 0 to pass a resolution calling for the ruling to be overturned.

The House of Representatives reacted just as strongly. About 100 members joined in a bipartisan condemnation of the ruling by gathering Wednesday afternoon on the Capitol steps to recite the pledge and to sing "God Bless America."

The House is expected to adopt its own resolution today.

The backlash reached from the highest seats of power--President Bush branded the ruling "ridiculous"--to the sleepy country lanes of middle America.

Bill Blake, a 71-year-old Korean War vet living in Indiantown, Fla., bristled along with everyone else when the topic echoed through the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. "I think it is disgraceful that they would think of doing something like this," Blake said.

The national VFW organization, based in Kansas City, Mo., called the decision "an unconscionable act by our court system, especially when patriotism is renewing the spirit of our nation."

The court's very different opinion, expressed in a 31-page ruling, clearly showed more feel for technicalities of the law than for the mood of the nation. With flags still flying from car antennas, with families of terrorism victims still grieving, with U.S. forces still conducting a global search for Osama bin Laden, federal circuit judges voted 2 to 1 to declare teacher-led recitations of the pledge--which have been a rite of schoolchildren for decades--unconstitutional.

The judges found that the phrase "under God" is an endorsement of religion that violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

"What's next?" asked Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who criticized the ruling as "absurd." He said he fears that the decision jeopardizes the national motto, "In God We Trust," and lines from the final verse of "The Star Spangled Banner."

"If this doesn't outrage the citizenry of California," said Gil Ferguson, a World War II veteran and former Orange County assemblyman, "it's obvious that nothing ever is going to outrage the people. I would tell the school boards not to pay any attention to the ruling."

The National Republican Congressional Committee quickly recommended the same.

"The Pledge of Allegiance is a reflection of the values of America and has been an important patriotic tradition for more than a century," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "I trust that the judicial process will ultimately overturn this wrongheaded decision."

The last time a federal court decision on a patriotic symbol caused such an outpouring of criticism was in 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled it legal for citizens to burn the flag as a form of political protest.

Passions were such Wednesday that it was difficult to find supporters of the 9th Circuit's stance.

Margie Ghiz, owner of the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, was one member of that minority.

"The idea of pledging the allegiance or waving the flag [has] nothing to do with patriotism," she said. "Real patriotism, and real love for your country, is expressed in so many different ways--like dissent, or people fighting against the closure of hospitals."

Some religious leaders supported the court's ruling. The Rev. Masao Kodani of the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles said Buddhists do not believe in God, and many view the concept of a supreme creator as a cause of suffering. Kodani said he instructs children in his temple's dharma classes to recite the pledge in school but to remain silent during the mention of God.

Thomas Curry, the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Santa Barbara, said that he had not yet seen the ruling but that he generally favors strict bans against government promotion of religion.

"Religion is something propagated by a free people and the grace of God, not by government," said Curry, author of "Farewell to Christendom," a book on church-state issues published last year.

Curry said the key question was whether the pledge's single reference to God really amounted to government promotion of religion and actually oppressed anyone, or was simply an expression of the nation's traditions.

Wednesday's ruling was the stuff talk radio dreams are made of. With a "this-just-in" quality about an issue like prayer in school, the airwaves were crackling.

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