WASHINGTON — It was on Flag Day in 1954 that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. On Flag Day this year — June 14 — anticipation is building over whether the U.S. Supreme Court will allow students to continue reciting those words as they place their hands over their hearts.

The Bush administration — along with members of Congress, the Knights of Columbus and the American Center for Law and Justice — are hoping the high court will overturn last year's 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the phrase “one nation under God” is unconstitutional.

The lower court said the words violate the separation of church and state since a “profession that we are a nation ‘under God’ is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus’ or a nation ‘under no god.’”

The controversial phrase owes its origin to the Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world, which lobbied for its inclusion. Congress granted its wish in 1954.

Now the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is filing a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Knights, urging the Supreme Court to hear the case this fall.

A decision on whether it will be heard is expected this month. “In America, we've known ever since Thomas Jefferson that our rights are not gifts of the state but of the Creator,” said Becket Fund president Kevin Hasson. “The state didn't give them to us so the state can't take them away. It's crucial to remind ourselves — and the government — of that fact every time we pledge allegiance.”

The challenge to the “under God” phrase is replete with ironies. Michael Newdow, an emergency room physician and lawyer, sued on behalf of his 6-year-old daughter because, he said, as a parent he wants his daughter to be free from daily theistic “indoctrination,” which he finds “offensive.”

It turns out that his daughter has stated she has no trouble reciting the words, Newdow said: “When I see our Pledge of Allegiance containing the words ‘under God,’ I see a gross violation of one of our foremost constitutional mandates…. [T]he resultant harm is that a minority population is made to feel like ‘outsiders’ in both situations…. What of those parents who choose not to inculcate their children with such a belief? Where is the religious freedom so precious to our democratic ideals?”

Newdow said his is a “civil-rights campaign” against the “official antipathy toward atheistic Americans,” one he considers to be “as important and as serious as any in our history.”

Newdow says he is an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church who later went on and started his own church, the First Amendmist Church of True Science, according to his Web site regarding the Pledge court case, www.restorethepledge.com.

Plus, Newdow's daughter is a devout Christian who attends Calvary Chapel church in Sacramento, Calif., with her mother, Sandra Banning. Banning, who is not married to Newdow, said she was appalled that “the whole nation was under the impression that my daughter was an atheist, when she was raised in a Christian home.”

“As a single Christian mother, I want to set a godly atmosphere for her,” she said. “We speak very openly about the Lord. I pray with her every day and keep her active in church.”

According to Banning, her daughter told her, “Mommy, it doesn't matter to me. I will still say ‘under God’ under my breath.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union thinks that in light of the Supreme Court's “rulings invalidating prayer at school events,” the Pledge of Allegiance is an “unconstitutional endorsement of religion and cannot be recited in schools”; schools “can and should teach tolerance and good citizenship but must not favor one religion over another or belief over non-belief.”

The Pledge of Allegiance was penned during the Reconstruction era, when the United States was beginning its ascendancy on the world stage as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the first wave of European immigrants were landing on the shores of the “land of opportunity” and taking the citizenship oath on the shores of Ellis Island.

The “Pledge to the Flag” was written by Francis Bellamy and James Upham — “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands — one nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all” — to help inspire American schoolchildren with a love for America and for all of the principles upon which it was founded.

The pair then published it in The Youth's Companion magazine on Sept. 8, 1892, and sent copies of the Pledge to schools throughout the United States so 12 million school-children could recite it during ceremonies commemorating the 400-year anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America on Oct. 12, 1492. Immediately after the celebration, recitation of the Pledge became a daily occurrence in American schools.

Two changes were made to the Pledge during the 1920s. In 1923, the first National Flag Conference in Washington, D.C., voted to change the words “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America.”

Then in 1942, the Pledge finally received the official sanction of Congress, but the following year the Supreme Court ruled that public school students could not be forced to recite it.

The Knights began adding the words when they recited the Pledge at council meetings in the early 1950s. After signing the bill to add the words in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower told the organization: “These words will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man and upon which our way of life is founded.”

U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who would argue the current case before the Supreme Court, said America has a long history of protecting religious minorities such as Newdow.

“This continent was populated by people who surrendered their homes and crossed a terrifying ocean to reach a rugged and inhospitable frontier in order to escape religious persecution and to seek religious freedom,” Olson said.

“From its birth, this nation and the American people have offered sanctuary and shelter to persons of all faiths,” he told the Federalist Society in a speech at their national convention in 2001. “Our Constitution — always with the support of our people — has again and again extended its embrace to the unpopular, the unusual, the unconventional and the unorthodox. We protect not only those who will not salute our flag but also those who would spit upon it or burn it. We regularly pledge our allegiance to a Constitution that shelters those who refuse to pledge their allegiance to it.”

“Far from tyrannizing those who worship a particular god or embrace a particular religion, we protect those who worship any god — or no god,” Olson said.

Therefore, Olson states in his brief to the court that Newdow's case should be overturned because the Pledge is not religious but patriotic speech.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said “the court has ruled again and again in favor of the Pledge,” adding that the Justice Department will “vigorously defend our nation's heritage and our children's ability to recite the Pledge.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said Newdow has “really stretched it.”

“His argument ignores that no one is compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance,” Sekulow said. “No student, no adult is forced to say it. It's not a requirement for citizenship. You don't earn brownie points for saying it; there's no reward. It's just a patriotic expression of belief in God's providence and acknowledges the religious history of our nation.”