An appeals court Wednesday upheld a Virginia law that requires public schools to lead a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, rejecting a claim that its reference to God is an unconstitutional promotion of religion.
A suit filed by Edward R. Myers, a Sterling father of three, raised the objection to the phrase "one nation under God."
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond ruled that the pledge is a patriotic exercise, not an affirmation of religion as a prayer would be.
"Undoubtedly, the pledge contains a religious phrase, and it is demeaning to persons of any faith to assert that the words 'under God' contain no religious significance," Judge Karen J. Williams wrote. "The inclusion of those two words, however, does not alter the nature of the pledge as a patriotic activity."
Myers's attorney, David H. Remes, said the judges failed to examine the pledge's effect on children.
"The problem is that young schoolchildren are quite likely to view the pledge as affirming the existence of God and national subordination to God," Remes said. "The reference to God is one of the few things in the pledge that children understand."
Remes said he and his client had not discussed whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
State Attorney General Judith W. Jagdmann (R) said the appeals court's decision reaffirms the General Assembly's authority to direct the patriotic education of Virginia children.
Myers traces 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 County 12 years ago and the commute to a Washington church became difficult. He and his family now attend Catholic services.
Members of the Mennonite tradition oppose saying oaths to any entity but God, Myers said. Followers believe in trying to stay apart from the secular world and feel religion is sullied when mixed with government.
"The combination of God and country approaches a civic religion that is in competition with my religion," he said.
Children in Virginia public schools are required by law to recite the pledge every day. Those opposed are allowed to stand or sit quietly rather than participate -- an option Myers's two school-age sons exercise. But forcing them to listen still violates their rights, he said.
Myers's activism has made him an irritant to the county government. In 2003, Myers, a software engineer, affixed stickers with pictures of a burning U.S. flag to his children's school bus while it sat in a parking lot. His action was a protest against flag stickers that the county had put on school buses not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 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 sued the county sheriff's office last year because the colors used in deputies' new uniforms didn't technically conform to state law.