NASHVILLE, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- "I pledge allegiance to the flag" ... simple words uttered every morning in varying degrees of alertness and enthusiasm, in schools around the country. Yet when President George W. Bush stepped center stage at East Literature Magnet School here at precisely 1 p.m. Central Time to lead students and teachers in the ritual, his voice was merely one of tens of thousands.
At the same moment, in time zones running from the East Coast to Hawaii in the far west, America's children joined in the 31-word recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the second annual Pledge Across America Day.
Or the 10th annual event, depending on how you count it.
"Its crazy around here, but an exciting crazy," said Paula Barton, a California mother and substitute teacher who began promoting the synchronized pledging in 1992. "We've been promoting this for 10 years, but until the government got involved last year -- after 9-11 they heard about us and pulled up our Web site and liked what they saw -- it was much smaller."
Barton, who immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands when she was 9, is president of Celebration USA Inc., a non-profit group she founded with friends. Working from her kitchen table, she and the volunteers promote civic education and the symbols of patriotism, something she said became her mission after a student told her he mistook "indivisible" in the pledge for "invisible."
This year, her group is organizing a mass event in southern California, featuring Celebration USA's "Catch the Spirit Singers" and stars such as Ernest Borgnine.
Barton told United Press International at least 60,000 schools nationwide were participating in Tuesday's event, which coincided with Constitution Day.
In Hollywood Hills, as in Nashville and other places, the Pledge of Allegiance was the centerpiece, as it has been in the nation's schools for nearly 100 years:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible,
With Liberty and Justice for all."
A scaled down version of those words first appeared in the Sept. 8th issue of "The Youth's Companion" magazine in 1892. It is generally believed it was authored by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, political socialist and educator for a ceremony marking Columbus Day.
His original version, recited by school children in Boston, used the words "my flag," rather than "the flag of the United States." That was changed in 1923; "of America" was added the following year.
In 1942, the Pledge of Allegiance, an unofficial oath, was officially sanctioned by Congress.
"Under God" was added in 1954 as the nation was in the early throes of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its atheistic system of communism.
"In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war," President Dwight D. Eisenhower said at the time.
This last addition is now the center of court challenge and controversy. The Ninth Circuit Court in California in June, acting on arguments by a Sacramento area doctor, lawyer and atheist -- Michael Newdow -- ruled the phrase unconstitutional and ordered schools to stop uttering them.
"Ridiculous," President Bush said when he heard of the court action.
Congress also weighed in, passing a resolution 99-0 in support of the pledge as it is currently written.
Newdow argued the phrase violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which mandates separation of church and state. Any elation he had felt upon hearing the court ruling, however, was short-lived. The court, amid nationwide uproar, stayed the decision, and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said the government would appeal the ruling.
"I'm upholding the Constitution," Newdow told UPI. "They are asking for me to allow them to continue violating the law."
Newdow, who is opposed to chaplains in Congress or chaplains speaking at the presidential inauguration, said Bush was violating the law by saying the pledge with the phrase "Under God," Tuesday, as was everyone else who did so.
The fact that so many people were doing so, he said, "shows you what we think about atheists in this country. I thought we were supposed to have religious liberty and respect for everybody in this country."