03-24-04 WASHINGTON - Americans overwhelmingly want the phrase "under God" preserved in the Pledge of Allegiance, a new poll says as the Supreme Court on Wednesday examines whether the classroom salute crosses the division of church and state. Almost nine in 10 people said the reference to God belongs in the pledge despite constitutional questions about the separation of church and state, according to an Associated Press poll. The Supreme Court was hearing arguments from a California atheist who objected to the daily pledges in his 9-year-old daughter's classroom. He sued her school and won, setting up the landmark appeal before a court that has repeatedly barred school-sponsored prayer from classrooms, playing fields and school ceremonies. The pledge is different, argue officials at Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, where the girl attends school. Superintendent Dave Gordon said popular opinion is on their side — but that's not all. "It's not a popularity contest. If something is wrong, it should be corrected. No matter how many people support it," he said. "The argument that `under God' in the pledge is pushing religion on children is wrong on the law. It's also wrong from a common sense perspective." Dozens of people camped out on a cold night, bundled in layers and blankets, to be among the first in line to hear the landmark case. "I just wanted to have a story to tell my grandkids," said Aron Wolgel, a junior from American University. Supporters of the pledge began the day outside the court, under sunny skies, reciting the pledge and emphasizing the words "under God." "After today, this court will decide whether America remains one nation under God or whether we shake a fist in God's face," the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, told a crowd of people carrying signs that read: "I support the pledge." Some supporters of the California father shouted over the speeches of pledge proponents. They carried signs with slogans like "Democracy Not Theocracy." God was not part of the original pledge written in 1892. Congress inserted it in 1954, after lobbying by religious leaders during the Cold War. Since then, it has become a familiar part of life for a generation of students. The question put to the Supreme Court: Does the use of the pledge in public schools violate the Constitution's ban on government established religion? Michael Newdow, the father who filed the lawsuit, compared the controversy to the issue of segregation in schools, which the Supreme Court took up 50 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education. "Aren't we a better nation because we got rid of that stuff?" asked Newdow, a 50-year-old lawyer and doctor arguing his own case at the court. The AP poll, conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs, found college graduates were more likely than those who did not have a college degree to say the phrase "under God" should be removed. Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to think the phrase should be taken out. Justices could dodge the issue altogether. They have been urged to throw out the case, without a ruling on the constitutional issue, because of questions about whether Newdow had custody when he filed the suit and needed the mother's consent. The girl's mother, Sandra Banning, is a born-again Christian and supporter of the pledge. "I object to his inclusion of our daughter" in the case, Banning said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America" show. She said she worries that her daughter will be "the child who is remembered as the little girl who changed the Pledge of Allegiance." Absent from the case is one of the court's most conservative members, Justice Antonin Scalia, who bowed out after he criticized the ruling in Newdow's favor during a religious rally last year. Newdow had requested his recusal. The case is Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 02-1624.