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Pols Stampede to Decry Court Ruling on Pledge

Politics: Bipartisan resolutions affirm the patriotic rite, protest decision by 9th Circuit.

June 28, 2002|JENIFER WARREN and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In Washington, they sang a rousing, bipartisan rendition of "God Bless America." In Sacramento, they scrambled to pass resolutions aimed at keeping the Pledge of Allegiance intact.

One day after a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the pledge unconstitutional because it includes the words "under God," politicians from coast to coast rushed to condemn the decision and indignantly demand it be overturned.

Some decried the decision as an assault on traditional American values. Others dubbed it political correctness run amok.

Nearly everyone--from President Bush on down--had something to say. After all, this is an election year, and the Pledge of Allegiance--embodying love of country and impeccable citizenship--is a powerful symbol for Democrats and Republicans alike.

With Fourth of July approaching and Sept. 11 a still-vivid memory, politicians "would be crazy not to wrap themselves in this issue," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento.

"The community psyche of the American public is still very fragile," she said, "So any change in the pledge, or support for that change, would be seen as unpatriotic."

Whatever their motivation, lawmakers eagerly jumped into the fray Thursday--with some using the issue to bludgeon political foes.

In Sacramento, Gov. Gray Davis vowed to make the strongest possible case as California moves to overturn the court's ruling. The state, along with the federal government, the Sacramento schools and the Elk Grove School District, were defendants in the suit, brought by a Sacramento County atheist.

Standing before two American flags and beside a printed version of the pledge, the governor said he was "shocked and personally offended" by the "wrong-headed" ruling.

Not far away, his gubernatorial opponent, GOP candidate Bill Simon Jr., stood on the steps of the 9th Circuit Court and questioned the governor's commitment to the issue.

Simon charged that Davis had failed to file any legal arguments defending the pledge because he was too busy raising campaign money: "I am here today to say that as governor I will not waver in defending the pledge ... and I will not hesitate in saluting our flag," Simon said.

A spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer called Simon's charge "absurd," noting that the state was not "served properly" and that none of the attorneys who would handle such a matter knew of the lawsuit.

The day began as it usually does in Congress and the Legislature--with recitations of the pledge.

But there was a difference this time: The seats were full and the politicians were paying attention.

With cameras rolling and reporters scribbling notes, lawmakers in Sacramento stood, erect and with hands over hearts, and raised the volume considerably when they came to the words "under God."

In Washington, the Senate did the same and also approved, by a 99-0 vote, a bill reaffirming support for the pledge and "In God We Trust" as the national motto. In the House, members from both parties sang "God Bless America," then passed a resolution, 416 to 3, protesting the court's ruling.

The three foes were all Democrats, including two from California: Reps. Pete Stark of Fremont and Michael M. Honda of San Jose. Honda said he voted against the resolution to uphold the principle of separation of church and state.

"Yeah, I'm patriotic," he said. But, he added, "We're a pluralistic society. To say 'under God' would only profess one type of religion."

Stark said the court was right. Adding the words "under God" to the pledge, as Congress did in 1954, was wrong because the phrase "does not accommodate the diversity of religious and personal beliefs in our nation as the Constitution requires," he said.

A similar resolution affirming the pledge came up late in the day in the state Assembly--but only after hours of rhetorical swordplay between lawmakers dueling over authorship. In the end, Democrat Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Republican Anthony Peschetti of Rancho Cordova shared the credit. But Cardoza's name came first because his party controls the Legislature.

Taking a break from the fight over a new state budget, lawmakers spent an hour speechifying about the resolution, which urged the U.S. Supreme Court to immediately overturn the ruling. It ultimately passed on a 69-0 vote.

Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino) lambasted the 9th Circuit as "a rogue court," while Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) called the decision "a moral affront" and further proof that society is "so lost that we chase God from every institution, from every scrap of paper, from every pledge we make as citizens."

Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto) was one of only a few legislators who raised doubts about a "pandering" political reaction: "We're just falling all over ourselves to say I'm holier than thou," said Longville, who abstained from the vote.

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