Thursday, July 20, 2006

House votes to protect "under God" in pledge

House votes to protect "under God" in pledge
By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a move intended to preserve a reference to God in an oath recited by millions of Americans each day, the House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to prevent U.S. courts from hearing challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The 260-167 vote, largely along party lines, was one of several hot-button topics brought to the House floor by Republican leaders aiming to highlight differences between the parties before November's congressional elections.

In the Senate, a similar bill has not advanced since it was introduced a year ago.

Conservatives have sought to keep the phrase "under God" in the pledge since an appeals court ruled in 2002 it amounted to an endorsement of religion in violation of the U.S. Constitution. An atheist had challenged the pledge being recited in his daughter's school. Schoolchildren across the nation commonly pledge allegiance to the flag each morning.

The Supreme Court struck down the appeals court decision on procedural grounds but left the door open for another challenge, causing Republicans to say the pledge must be placed off-limits before "activist judges" tamper with it again.

"We're creating a fence. The fence goes around the federal judiciary. We're doing that because we don't trust them," said Missouri Rep. Todd Akin.

The California man who has led the challenge against the phrase "under God" vowed to fight the new legislation if it became law and said it provided him with new legal arguments against the pledge.

"This is the greatest thing that could have happened," Michael Newdow, who is both a lawyer and a doctor, said by telephone. "They are showing the courts that this is a huge issue and that they want their religious view espoused by our government which is exactly what the Constitution forbids."

Akin and other Republicans said the reference to God, added to the pledge in 1954, did not endorse any specific religion but referred to the philosophy of the country's founders that rights such as freedom of speech were granted by a divine being, not a government.

Democrats said the measure would deprive the courts of their ability to oversee an important form of personal rights.

(Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in San Francisco)