So who was responsible for getting those prickly words "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance half a century ago?

Truth be told, the key role may have been played by a British citizen, a Washington pastor who advocated the change in a sermon delivered to an audience that included President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Last week, Congress's 48-year-old vote to add "under God" to the pledge was back in the news when a federal appeals court in California ruled the phrase unconstitutional. After the decision drew bipartisan criticism from Capitol Hill, the judge agreed to block his own ruling from taking effect while it is appealed.

The controversy also revived discussion about whom to credit -- or blame -- for the addition of the words "under God."

Based on contemporary news reports and congressional records, it's fair to say that although the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization, began the movement to insert the words into the pledge, a sermon by the Rev. George M. Docherty was the catalyst for action. The pastor was intent on pushing the United States to distinguish itself from communist countries by acknowledging God's role in American society.

Docherty, 91, who now lives in central Pennsylvania, said this week that he got the idea for preaching an "under God" sermon in 1952.

The erudite Scotsman had succeeded the legendary Peter Marshall as pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Northwest Washington and been asked to address that year's Washington Pilgrimage, an annual convergence of more than 500 religious leaders who came to the nation's capital "to rekindle their patriotism."

Docherty was struggling for a sermon topic when his son Garth, then 7, came home from school, and Docherty casually asked him, "What did you do in school today?"

"Nothing."

"Come on, you must have done something. What's the first thing you did in class today?"

"Said the Pledge of Allegiance."

Docherty asked Garth to recite the pledge, and it was then that he noted the absence of any reference to God.

"I had found my sermon!" he recalled.

Members of the Washington Pilgrimage praised the message, the same version Docherty would preach two years later in Eisenhower's presence.

But "nothing happened" after that first presentation on May 3, 1952, Docherty said. The nationwide movement he had hoped for -- a grass-roots effort to get Congress to change the law -- did not come about. And some clergy objected to the change for the same reasons given last week by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The majority [of the pilgrimage] endorsed the proposal," The Washington Post reported, "but several of Dr. Docherty's colleagues in this city declared it would violate the principle of separation of church and state." Eventually, the pilgrimage "dropped the idea" to lobby Congress on the issue, The Post reported.

Meanwhile, the Knights of Columbus -- which in 1951 became the first group to voluntarily add "under God" to its pledge recitations -- had begun its own lobbying effort. On April 20, 1953, after receiving a letter from Brooklyn resident H. Joseph Mahoney, Rep. Louis C. Rabaut (D-Mich.) filed a bill with the "under God" wording.

But "action on the bill was slow" until Docherty preached his second sermon on the topic nearly a year later, The Post reported.

After his arrival at New York Avenue Presbyterian in 1950, Docherty instituted a tradition that would last his 26 years as pastor -- the annual Lincoln Sunday celebration. He invited Eisenhower, who had joined National Presbyterian Church shortly after his 1953 inauguration and had been baptized there. The president accepted Docherty's invitation and sat in the pew once rented by Lincoln.

On Feb. 7, 1954, Docherty told a full house that he had grown up in Scotland singing "God Save Our King" at public events. So he was chagrined when he first heard his son recite the Pledge of Allegiance because, unlike the Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence, it contained no reference to a divine being. Docherty, who would become a U.S. citizen in 1960, said that he had an advantage over American parents, who listened to the "those noble words" with rote familiarity.

"I came to a strange conclusion," he told them. The pledge lacked "the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life," the "fundamental concept" of the Founding Fathers that the country exists because of God and through God.

"Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase, 'the United States of America,' this could be a pledge of any republic," he preached. "In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity."

Docherty knew the change would take an act of Congress and the president's signature. But he had a good feeling that day, and he decided to test the water.

"I said to Mr. Eisenhower after the service, 'What do you think?' " Docherty recalled this week, his Glasgow burr still evident. The president, he reported, said, "I agree entirely."

Bradley H. Patterson Jr., who worked at the White House during the Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford administrations and has written two books about the inner workings of the West Wing, said he did not join the president's staff in the fall of 1954. So he was not party to any conversations on the issue that Eisenhower might had with staffers or members of Congress.

But the president likely would have agreed with Docherty's "under God" message, said H. Roemer McPhee, a White House counsel during the Eisenhower administration who also arrived after the bill had been signed. "Dwight was a Presbyterian -- and a serious one," McPhee said.

Docherty believes that Eisenhower "set the machinery in motion," but he also credits media coverage of Eisenhower's visit for giving the proposal the impetus it needed. Paramount even recorded portions of the event for a newsreel that ran in movie theaters for weeks afterward, recalled Thomas Casberg, 80, one of two church elders assigned to accompany Eisenhower to a reception area after the service.

Congressional response was immediate. Members of both houses who read or heard about the sermon called to congratulate Docherty; some asked for copies. On Monday, Feb. 8, Rep. Charles G. Oakman (R-Mich.) introduced a House bill that would insert "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance, which had been officially adopted by Congress in 1942. On Feb. 10, Sen. Homer Ferguson (R-Mich.) filed a companion bill and on another occasion quoted Docherty's sermon, which he said inspired the joint resolution.

On Feb. 12, Rabaut, the Michigan representative who had introduced the first "under God" bill a year earlier, told the House that Docherty had "seized the opportunity" of Lincoln Sunday to note the use of "under God" in the Gettysburg Address and "to urge the phrase be added to the pledge."

Congress passed Rabaut's bill and held an elaborate celebration at the Capitol on Flag Day, June 14, the day Eisenhower signed it into law. Docherty wasn't there to enjoy it. "Everybody who was anybody was present except me," Docherty said. "They forgot to invite me."

The retired pastor now lives in the small community of Alexandria, Pa., with his second wife, Sue Docherty, a fourth-grade teacher. His first wife, Mary, died in 1970.

As for last week's court decision, Docherty called it "an outcome of the growing tendency to secularize the nation."

Of the national outcry against the decision, he said: "That's democracy. If they want to seek that way of life in California, let them seek it. But it's got to be agreed on by the rest of the states."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

George M. Docherty, former pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, got the idea for the sermon 50 years ago during a chat with his son, then 7.Docherty's 1984 autobiography, "I've Seen the Day," at top, includes a photo of himself with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.Docherty discusses separation of church and state and other issues in "One Way of Living," left, a 1958 book based on his sermons.