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Devoted to God, but Not the Pledge

Edward R. Myers, with son Jaxon, 4, has protested U.S. flag stickers on school buses and has sued over the color of Loudoun sheriff's office uniforms.
Edward R. Myers, with son Jaxon, 4, has protested U.S. flag stickers on school buses and has sued over the color of Loudoun sheriff's office uniforms. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005

Edward R. Myers used to ride motorcycles and fly his own airplane.

But all that seemed too dangerous after he got married and had children. So the Sterling man took up a new pastime: suing the government.

He has pursued deeply held religious convictions in courtrooms in Loudoun County, Alexandria and North Carolina. He is most passionate about his opposition to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, which Myers believes unconstitutionally mingles God and government and dilutes his religion.

A software engineer with no legal training, he plunked down $100 to file a suit in federal court in 2002, figuring he'd represent himself and make a point. He lost at the U.S. District Court level. But three years later, Myers's case has been taken on by a prominent civil liberties attorney and stands poised to help decide the Pledge of Allegiance's legality in schools nationwide.

At the moment, he awaits a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit on the matter. Win or lose, the case's next stop could be the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last year, the justices heard from Michael Newdow, a California atheist who had successfully argued in lower courts that the pledge was unconstitutional for including the words "under God." But the justices ruled Newdow's case was invalid because he did not have custody of his daughter. That left Myers at the tip of the spear for the still-unsettled legal question.

Custody is no issue for Myers -- he lives on a quiet cul-de-sac behind a Kohl's department store with his wife and three sons. Myers argues that he is also a slipperier target for the political right, which pilloried Newdow for trying to divorce God from public life.

Myers, 46, is intensely religious, tracing his ancestry to Anabaptist Mennonites who fled Europe in the 1600s over the separation of church and state. He grew up on a Pennsylvania farm and attended Mennonite churches until he moved from Fairfax County to Loudoun 12 years ago and the commute to a Washington church became too much. Now he and his family attend Catholic services each week.

Members of the Mennonite tradition oppose saying oaths to any entity but God, he said. Followers believe in trying to stay apart from the secular world and feel religion is sullied when mixed with government.

"To me, it's heresy," he said. "Government is about keeping civil order. Church is about loving and worshiping God. You don't mix . . . loving God because of free choice with something that's about duty and where you were born."

Children in Virginia public schools are required by law to recite the pledge each day. Those opposed are allowed to stand or sit quietly rather than participate -- an option Myers's two school-aged sons exercise. But forcing them to listen still violates their rights, he said.

Government lawyers have argued that the recitation of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance has become so routine that it holds a historical and not a religious meaning. For Myers, that notion is demeaning to God and confusing to his children.

Those views have gained the soft-spoken code developer some unlikely admirers.

Joe Glover, president of the Christian, conservative Family Policy Network, said he and Myers have much in common. The group lobbied for a Virginia law that requires posting "In God We Trust" in all government buildings -- coincidentally, another of Myers's targets. Shortly after oral arguments in March, Glover called Myers and the two spoke for an hour.

"Not wanting the state to establish who God is? We're in agreement on that," he said. "I would hope that evangelicals especially would not jump to conclusions about Ed Myers. I hope they would think through his presuppositions and not assume he's trying to be a fly in the ointment."

Myers's activism has made him quite an irritant to his local government. School officials declined to comment on Myers but said they have spent $64,000 since June 2003 fighting his case.

Outside the courtroom, Myers said, he tries to perform an act or two of what he considers free speech each year to protest what he believes is society's excessive flag adoration.

In 2003, he affixed stickers with pictures of a burning U.S. flag on his children's school bus while it sat idle in a parking lot to protest flag stickers the county put on the bus not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. For that stunt, he was arrested and charged with trespassing and tampering with the bus. He spent a day defending himself in court, losing the case but persuading a jury to fine him only $1 for each of the six charges.

He has tried to buy an ad in the school yearbook to explain his beliefs. It was rejected. He stuffed brochures into teachers' mailboxes. He sued the sheriff's office because its uniforms didn't technically conform to state law.

Despite all that, Myers said it's important to him to prove that people with unconventional opinions can be good neighbors. It's a "dualism," he said, that lets him volunteer for the school chess club while exchanging legal letters with the principal. The family participates in homeowner association activities. His wife was president of the PTO.

"At neighborhood cookouts, it's friendly debate," said Sonya Kalian, a close friend who lived near the family for a decade. "It's, 'How can you believe that, Ed?' And, 'Can you pass another Coors Light?' "

It hasn't always been that comfortable, he said. He spoke about his beliefs at a School Board meeting in November 2001, causing a board member to respond, voice shaking with emotion, that as an Army veteran he had a "great deal of trouble" with the speech and that it was "ill-timed" coming so soon after Sept. 11. After that, Myers received anonymous nasty calls and death threats.

His wife, who declined to be interviewed, is uncomfortable with the attention, he said. He said making people mad is no fun but making them think is exactly that.

"If people don't take risks," he said, "we don't have progress."

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