Originally created 06/28/02

Ruling draws large reaction



Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker gave "under God" the green light Thursday.

In a letter addressed to state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko and local school systems, he said Georgia schoolchildren can continue to say the pledge, despite a federal court's ruling.

"I want to make clear that no school district in Georgia needs to prohibit the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance or the phrase 'under God' within the Pledge due to this decision," he wrote. "I firmly believe the decision is wrong, and I have every confidence that this decision will be reversed upon further appeal."

The letter comes on the heels of the ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California on Wednesday that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional because the phrase "under God" violates the separation of church and state.

"It's the right decision," Augusta lawyer Jack E. Boone Jr. said of the ruling. He said the Constitution says, "no government, our government, can establish a religion."

"By using the word 'God,' you are requiring someone who pledges allegiance to his country to also believe in God," he said. "You can't force me as an American citizen to pledge to a god ... You have the right to believe in anything as an American citizen, but the government can't require you to believe."

Another lawyer, John B. Long, holds a different opinion.

"The use of the word 'God' is not an endorsement of religion. The separation of church and state does not mean you can't use the word 'God,"' he said.

Mr. Long said he believes the panel's 2-1 decision will be reversed by the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If it isn't reversed by that court, then by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled Thursday that taxpayer money could be used to pay for students to attend religious schools.

"God is not just a Christian term," he said. "I think (the use of the word God) is entirely different than requiring everyone to stand up and recite the Lord's Prayer."

Members of the clergy had similar sentiments.

Calling it "a fairly silly lawsuit," the Rev. Robert Fain, rector of Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, said the court's decision trivializes legitimate issues concerning the separation of church and state.

The Rev. Bill Burch, pastor of Burns Memorial United Methodist Church, said, "We are the country we are today because we have been a God-fearing people."

Dissenters have the right to disagree, but they need to recognize they are a small minority, he said.

"In a democratic society, we are the state - the state is not an entity, in and of itself - it is the people. If most of us do believe in God, then we need to be able to affirm that in the pledge," the Rev. Burch said.

The Rev. Bill Harrell, pastor at Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, said he is confident the decision will be overturned.

"The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California is the most liberal court of appeals in the nation, and (its decisions) have been reversed more than any other in the nation," the Rev. Harrell said.

The decision moved John McKenzie to speak out at Thursday's meeting of the Exchange Club of Augusta.

"I don't have a whole lot of respect for the San Francisco judiciary right now," Mr. McKenzie said. "If it wasn't for God in our country, I don't know where we'd be."

Mr. McKenzie then suggested the group sing God Bless America and recite the pledge. Members held their right hands over their hearts and spoke with emphasis when the words "under God" came up.

Not everyone, however, was opposed to the ruling.

Charles Heywood, the Lakeside High School debate coach and Columbia County's 2001-02 STAR Teacher, said the decision followed the Constitution.

"The Constitution is a godless document, and that was by design. At the time the Constitution was first promulgated in 1789, there was strong protest from the religious community on that point," he said. "What's good for the U.S. Constitution should be good for the Pledge of Allegiance."

Staff Writers Preston Sparks, Virginia Norton and Sandy Hodson contributed to this article.