Of Christmas Trees and Corpus Christi: Ceremonial Deism and Change in Meaning over Time
Although the Supreme Court turned away an Establishment Clause challenge to the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, the issues raised by that case will not go away anytime soon. Legal controversies over facially religious government speech have become one of the most regular and prominent features of Establishment Clause jurisprudence-and indeed, a second-round challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance is currently percolating, which will likely result in resolution by the Supreme Court. That resolution will depend on an understanding of the social meaning of the practice at issue. This Article addresses the constitutional analysis of "ceremonial deism"-brief official religious references such as the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the national motto "In God We Trust," and the city names Corpus Christi and St. Louis. Courts have generally stated in holdings and dicta that ceremonial deism is constitutional because these phrases have lost their religious meaning through the passage of time or rote repetition. To examine this claim-the "secularization" thesis-this Article draws on one particular branch of linguistic theory, known as speech act theory, as it applies to the problem of change in meaning over time. Because speech act theory is particularly useful for the analysis of social meaning, this Article contends that some insights about the problem of ceremonial deism may be found there, lending depth to an argument that has gone almost entirely untheorized by those who have espoused it. Finally, this Article considers the implications of this analysis for the constitutionality of these official religious references. Ultimately, while recognizing that meaning can change over time in some instances, this Article concludes that courts should be skeptical of this claim and should instead adopt a rebuttable presumption of enduring religious meaning when confronted with constitutional challenges to instances of ceremonial deism.
B. Jessie Hill,
Of Christmas Trees and Corpus Christi: Ceremonial Deism and Change in Meaning over Time,
59 Duke Law Journal
Available at: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol59/iss4/2