House debate on a bill to protect the Pledge of Allegiance from legal challenges because of the "under God" phrase erupted in heated rhetoric Wednesday with lawmakers from both parties using religious references to support their side.

"We are making an all-out assault on the Constitution of the United States which, thank God, will fail," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in opposition to the bill barring most federal courts from ruling on the pledge.

The pledge protection act, expected to pass over mainly Democratic opposition, is part of the House GOP’s "American values agenda" that House Speaker Dennis Hastert said would "defend America’s founding principles." Another part of that agenda, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, was defeated in the House on Tuesday.

The debate at times became angry, with Democrats accusing Republicans of spending time on issues important to their conservative base while ignoring the problems of the country and resisting efforts to raise the minimum wage.

"This is a joke," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), D-R.I., "that this majority would talk about God and yet not even work to raise the wages of the very people that are taking care of the children of God."

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Todd Akin (news, bio, voting record), R-Mo., said America was a nation of God-given inalienable rights and that’s why the country is in a war against "radical Islamists." Democrats wouldn’t want to "cut and run" in Iraq, he said, "if they understood the importance of those basic principles and that inalienable rights are impossible without a recognition of God and that’s why the pledge bill is important and not irrelevant or trivial."

The pledge bill would deny jurisdiction to federal courts, and appellate jurisdiction to the Supreme Court, to decide questions pertaining to the interpretation or constitutionality of the Pledge. State court could still decide whether the pledge is valid within the state.

The legislation grew out of a 2002 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools.

The Supreme Court in 2004 reversed that decision on a technicality, saying that Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow did not have legal standing to sue on behalf of his daughter because the mother had custody over the child. Newdow has since revived the case and last year a U.S. District Judge ruled in his favor.

Newdow, an attorney and medical doctor, said in an interview that he hoped the bill would pass to expose the aims of its supporters. "They’re willing to ruin this country so they can keep their God in our country. I love the fact that they are having a vote." He said he expected a final ruling in his case in about a year.

Sen. Jon Kyl (news, bio, voting record), R-Ariz., has introduced similar legislation in the Senate, but it is unclear if the Senate would take up the bill this year.

House questions about the bill surfaced when the House Judiciary Committee last month split 15-15 on whether to report it to the House floor. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., the lone Republican to vote against the bill, expressed concerns it would allow state courts to rule on issues related to the pledge while denying litigants the right to appeal to a federal court.

Arthur Hellman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that while Congress does have considerable power over district courts, its authority over Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction is "much more debatable."

Beyond the constitutional question, "it’s still a break with tradition. It is contrary to an arrangement that has worked very well for 200 years."

"Granting jurisdiction is the constitutional job of this body," argued House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. The pledge "is an important civic ritual; it binds us together as Americans," he said. Judges should not be able to rewrite the pledge."

In addition to the pledge protection bill, the House GOP’s "American values agenda" includes the gay marriage amendment, a ban on human cloning, a bill requiring women seeking late-term abortions to be informed that the fetus feels pain, an Internet gambling ban bill that has passed the House and several gun rights bills.


The bill is H.R. 2389

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