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In New York, It's Outrage Followed by 'Consider the Source'

June 28, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — "What are they smoking out there?"

As he unloaded heavy crates of soft drinks on a steamy Thursday morning, New York truck driver John Corcoran wasn't inclined to chat. But he was happy to blast the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional.

"This is typical for San Francisco, isn't it?" he added, wiping sweat from his face. "These people live in their own little world."

As Americans pondered the court's decision--with the great majority in apparent opposition--some seemed equally concerned that the panel had gone against the national grain at a time when the United States is at war.

Then they considered the source: The traditionally liberal court is just across the bay from Marin County, home of John Walker Lindh, the American who fought for the Taliban. The area is also home to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), the only member of Congress who opposed a resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It's the place where Berkeley officials ordered firefighters to remove large American flags from their fire trucks after the attacks, fearing they might incite violent antiwar protests. And now it's the home of a court opinion that has many rolling their eyes in disbelief.

As the furor grew, Judge Alfred T. Goodwin stayed the three-judge panel's decision on Thursday afternoon, pending a review by the full, 11-member Court of Appeals. The ruling, if upheld, would prevent public school students in nine Western states from reciting the pledge as now written.

To be sure, some legal experts said the panel's original ruling was based on sound constitutional principles and not so farfetched, despite the huge public controversy it has generated. Yet the image of a loopy ruling from a liberal West Coast court quickly took hold in the national media.

"Where's a San Francisco earthquake when you really need one?" cracked the New York Post in a lead editorial titled "Left Coast Lunacy." Even the New York Times, which editorialized that the circuit court decision was "well-meaning," dismissed the bombshell ruling, saying it "trivializes" serious constitutional debates about the separation of church and state.

As she waited to hail a cab near Macy's department store, freelance artist Angie Massa said she found the court decision repellent but the Bay Area "amusing."

"We've been saying [the pledge] all our lives, and suddenly some guy out there is worried about his daughter being exposed to something," she said. "I mean, don't you think all this is a little precious?"

Across the nation, television and radio talk shows boiled over with angry opinions on the decision. Several all-news cable TV networks compiled viewer polls throughout the day, all finding a majority opposed to the ruling.

There were numerous shots of schoolchildren reciting the pledge Thursday, plus interviews with students who said they had no problem with "under God." Grass-roots supporters of the ruling were in short supply.

When asked why the bulk of public opinion seemed to oppose the ruling, MSNBC commentator Jeff Cohen said it was "an emotional reaction" that ignored strict constitutional principles, adding that "I don't think these judges have gone too far at all." In response, National Review editor Rich Lowry said Cohen and the Bay Area judges were "out of step with America."

The ruling offered fodder for late-night comedy, from "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" to "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." Wednesday night, Leno said that he was going to open the show with the Pledge of Allegiance, "but I don't want to go to jail."

''If the ruling stands, [the words 'under God'] will be stricken, leaving a hole, or, as some in our cash-strapped government see it, a lucrative sponsorship opportunity,'' Stewart joked Thursday on his show, which mocks news coverage of the day's headlines.

Discussion of the ruling was quickly seized upon by talk-radio hosts, some of whom joined in lampooning California. KABC host Al Rantel, a conservative, called the ruling "shameful" but not surprising coming from "the People's Republic of San Francisco."

In Los Angeles, some callers to talk-radio shows said the Bay Area court's decision was long overdue, while others called it a foolhardy ruling that illustrated the "tyranny of the minority over the majority."

During a Fox News Channel interview, Michael A. Newdow, the Sacramento father who filed the lawsuit challenging the use of the Pledge of Allegiance in a local school district, declared: "I would hope that I am one of the most admired persons in America, for standing up for the Constitution."

But that was a hard sell in Manhattan. As he bought lottery tickets at a midtown newsstand, steamfitter Tim Sullivan laughed at the whole controversy and said Newdow was "an idiot--just a crazy guy from the Bay Area."

*

Times staff writers Paul Brownfield and Dana Calvo contributed to this report.

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