Religion: God's Country

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Wladyslaw Plywacki, 24, had passed all his tests for U.S. citizenship with flying colors. Imprisoned for five years by the Nazis in his native Poland before he es caped to the U.S., he had served a hitch in Japan for his adopted country. He was an Air Force corporal stationed at Hickam Field, Honolulu when he came up before Federal Judge J. Frank McLaughlin to take the official oath and become an American:

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty . . . that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America . . . and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion ..." But here Corporal Plywacki boggled. The next words were "So help me God." Wladyslaw Plywacki explained that he was an atheist, therefore could not in honesty use those words.

Judge McLaughlin directed Plywacki to take a coin out of his pocket. "What does it say on the back?" he demanded. When Plywacki had read the legend, "In God We Trust," Judge McLaughlin made a little speech.

"Our Government is founded on a belief in God. You are asking for the privilege of being part of the Government, but you are apparently seeking admission on your own terms. If you are not willing to take the oath in good faith, the oath prescribed by the Congress of the United States, I cannot grant your petition."

The court immigration officer, surprised that the judge had not merely substituted an affirmation of allegiance permitted for those who object to oath-taking, suggested that, since Plywacki was about to leave for the States, the whole matter could be settled on the mainland. But Judge McLaughlin, a Roman Catholic, had his principles, too. He ruled Plywacki ineligible for citizenship.

Plywacki appealed to the ninth circuit court of appeals in San Francisco. His argument: "If a native-born citizen is entitled to freedom of religion, which would include the right not to believe in God, then a petitioner for naturalization has the same right." Last week the Justice Department in Washington told its office in Honolulu to "confess error," indicating that it would not support Judge McLaughlin's ruling in the appeals court. But Immigration Service lawyers have so far been unable to find a single direct precedent for a case like Plywacki's, and there remains the possibility that the court will be required to make a historic decision.

Judge McLaughlin, meanwhile, is sticking to his spiritual guns. "I appreciate the right of a person to be an atheist," he says. "But if you join an organization that has principles based on the existence of a Supreme Being—from the Declaration of Independence on down to the latest pronouncements by President Eisenhower on the importance of religion—you must abide by the rules of that organization."

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