What are they afraid of?

It's a question I find myself asking when I see serious-minded people working to impose their will (especially their religious views) on the rest of us. What are committed opponents of gay marriage afraid of? What about the people who devote time and great resources to keep public schools from requiring a "moment of silence"? What are those people who want to ban manger scenes from public parks afraid of?

And what is Michael Newdow afraid of?

At one level, of course, I don't much care about Newdow, the atheist who brought suit to have the phrase that was inserted during the Eisenhower administration, "under God," eliminated from the Pledge of Allegiance. Newdow said he was doing it on behalf of his daughter, over whom he is in a custody battle and whose mother is okay with the pledge as is. Indeed it was his lack of standing to bring the suit that led to the Supreme Court's unanimous non-decision to dismiss his challenge last week.

I assume the daughter was pretext, but I also assume he and a few thousand other Americans would like the phrase gone from the pledge. What are they afraid of?

Let me say right off that I think the pledge was better without the phrase, which, in my view, ruined the rhythm while adding no discernible meaning.

But in the 50 years since the change, most Americans have grown used to it, awkwardness and all. Moreover, removing it at this late date would have meaning -- suggesting, as it would, that America no longer chooses to be "under God."

A strong argument can be made that, given the pledge's quasi-official standing, "under God" violates the Constitution. Similarly with Christmas scenes in public spaces, public school prayer and "In God We Trust" on our money. All can be seen as forbidden under the separation doctrine.

As a matter of fact, I tend to see them that way myself, and when the issue is forced -- Are our coins unconstitutional? -- I find myself having to accept the view that government should stay the heck out of religion. Period.

But must the issue always be forced?

The truth is, our government has always been involved in religion. The Declaration of Independence asserts rights that are given to us by the Creator. Our officials are sworn into office, their hands on a Bible and their lips invoking the help of God. Even the Supreme Court, the ultimate defender of the boundary between church and state, opens its sessions with this prayer from the court's marshal: "God save the United States and this honorable court."

Does any of this imply that atheists, pantheists or secular humanists cannot expect fair treatment, either as citizens or as plaintiffs before the court? My guess is that it implies nothing more than that a generalized pro-religion attitude -- what might be described as "public religion" -- is America's default position. We have learned over the years to observe this public religion in inoffensive ways. We might ask the intercession of the "blessed virgin" at a Catholic school graduation, but our prayers are to the generic "Almighty" or "Creator" in our multi-faith public schools. Nor does the failure of a Christian to offer such prayers "through Christ" imply a slackening of his Christianity. It's mostly a matter of courtesy.

The Michael Newdows of this world would say, I suppose, that atheists are harmed by the implication of their difference -- or at the very least that the children of atheists are under unfair pressure to join the religious mainstream.

I'm not so sure. Finding myself in a Muslim country at prayer time does not put me under any pressure whatsoever to subscribe to Islam. Nor, I suspect, is anyone pressured into theism by the words "under God." What is Newdow afraid of?

But it's no trouble at all to think of instances where religion publicly supported can do harm. Is it too much to expect the courts, like the best basketball officials, to take care of the genuinely harmful stuff while avoiding the rampant whistle-blowing that can destroy the rhythm of the game?

Maybe that's what the court tried to do last week by avoiding the core issue and reaching a conclusion based on the relatively innocuous question of standing.

If so, it was a good no-call.

willrasp@washpost.com