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Pledging a battle for the Pledge

The federal court ruling that killed the Pledge of Allegiance in western U.S. classrooms spawned a stack of pledges from Washington: a pledge from the White House to fight the ruling; a pledge from lawmakers to propose a constitutional amendment; a pledge from one Democratic senator to punish the "atheist lawyer" who penned the ruling. The decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would bar public-school teachers this fall in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state from leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance. In a symbol of defiance of the court, indignant lawmakers marched to the front of the Capitol and recited the Pledge; the Senate approved 99-0 a resolution condemning the court. Democrats and Republicans seemed to compete for most-colorful soundbite-"just nuts," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle; "our Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves," said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.). Meanwhile, President Bush's judicial nominees-45 of them-are spinning their wheels in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Republicans hoped the case would showcase the problem of a politicized court and pressure the Democrats to act on the nominations (see p. 16). House Speaker Dennis Hastert said, "It's time for the Senate to move forward and confirm some common-sense jurists." Senate Republican leader Trent Lott emphasized that the Pledge battle "highlights what the fight over federal judges is all about." It also highlights the unsettled state of religious-freedom rulings in the federal court system. The anti-Pledge judges cited as a foundation for their ruling a Supreme Court decision restricting graduation prayers. "This is the Supreme Court reaping what it sowed," said Christopher Landau, a former law clerk to conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, a dissenter in the graduation-prayer case, in The Washington Post. The Pledge case originates with atheist Michael Newdow, a lawyer and emergency-room doctor in Sacramento, who sued the Florence Markofer Elementary School on behalf of his 2nd-grade daughter, who he said did not want to hear the pledge recited (recital is strictly voluntary, per an earlier Supreme Court ruling). Parent Kathleen Doncaster, whose daughter also attends the school, thinks Dr. Newdow has too much time on his hands: "He needs to get a hobby." Evidently, filing nuisance lawsuits is his hobby. In 1997, the California man filed a case in Florida seeking to strike the words in God we trust from U.S. currency. Dr. Newdow's victory last week may be money in the bank. The dissenting judge in the 9th Circuit case, Ferdinand F. Fernandez, said that if the decision were to stand, "'God Bless America' and 'America the Beautiful' will be gone for sure, and ... currency beware!"

Opportunity for some

Washington state college students are free now to use state assistance to attend any school of their choice-even religious schools-though younger students are still denied that freedom. That's due to a state Supreme Court ruling last month that held Washington's constitutional ban on public money for schools under "sectarian control" applies only to K-12 students. The ruling stems from a case involving the state's Educational Opportunity Grant program. It provides annual grants of $2,500 to about 1,000 needy students. Just over one-third of them go to private colleges, some with religious affiliations. The ACLU and Washington State University professor Mary Gallwey sued the state in 1995 over the program. They complained that some of the schools require mandatory religion courses and chapel attendance. Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Assemblies of God churches ran some of the schools. The court was untroubled: "The Supreme Court has upheld neutrally applied state educational aid that is significantly more invasive and linked with religion than the EOG program, which, as already noted, contains myriad easily administered religious safeguards," Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in the 6-3 decision. School-choice supporters, though pleased by the relief for college students, remain troubled over the state's constitutional "Blaine Amendment." They say the U.S. Congress forced the amendment on the state-barring aid to any school under "sectarian control"-in exchange for admission to the union in 1889. They argue that the amendment was born of anti-Catholic hostility, and violates U.S. constitutional guarantees of free exercise of religion. Kevin J. Hasson, president of the religious liberty organization Becket Fund, vows to turn attention now to battling so-called Blaine amendments in Washington and 35 other states that could block development of voucher programs even though they received a green light from the Supreme Court last week (see p. 11). -Chris Stamper

Body piercing: A sticky issue

School district officials in Florida are concerned about body piercing, and they want to make sure students get the point. Florida's Lee County School Board last month extended its school dress code to include a ban on body piercing, even in areas normally hidden under clothes. The unanimously passed ruling includes tongues, navels, and other body parts, replacing a previous rule covering only exposed areas. Principals said the policy is necessary as a safety measure. "The principals felt that the adornments were a safety issue and that adornments other than earrings did pose a potential student safety issue," according to a June 7 memo by Superintendent John Sanders. He wrote that students might try to grab the baubles dangling from piercings. "It's a point where it becomes disturbing," board chairwoman Jane Kuckel said. "It's difficult because it's a fad." Tulsa Public schools banned visible body piercings last July. Pierced ears are allowed, but sagging pants, strapless tops, and some tattoos are also forbidden. Officials late last year said only occasional infractions had been reported. Some say piercings are part of a student's right to control his own body-and the debate has crossed over into the abortion issue. In Vermont, legislators proposed requiring parental consent before minors could get holes drilled in them. But pro-abortion Democrats worried that this could set a precedent for parental notification on abortion. -C.S.


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