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Bush Offers Robust Defense of Pledge

President Bush and his extended family headed to his parents' home in Kennebunkport, Maine Friday, where the president will celebrate his 56th birthday on Saturday.

Bush's birthday falls two days after the nation celebrated its 226th birthday this year, which the president used to pay tribute to U.S. veterans and offer a robust defense of the Pledge of Allegiance.

"The American people, when we pledge our allegiance to the flag, feel renewed respect and love for all it represents, and no authority of government can ever prevent an American from pledging allegiance to this one nation under God,'' Bush said, referring to a recent federal court decision that called the "under God" reference unconstitutional.

On this first Independence Day since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Bush also reminded Americans of the sacrifices made by military personnel and veterans.

Serving in the armed forces is ``the highest form of citizenship,'' he said. ``Whether the veterans here served in peacetime or in the worst battles, you have the nation's gratitude and the respect of your fellow Americans.''

He offered an Independence Day gift to 15,000 immigrants serving active duty in the U.S. military: immediate eligibility for citizenship.

Ripley's Courthouse Square provided the quintessential small-town backdrop for Bush's address. The president spoke before the handsome Jackson County Court House. Veterans and uniformed military personnel sat behind him and on his right, and thousands of people packed the square and spilled out into nearby streets. Flags and red, white and blue bunting graced practically every corner of the square, and a military band played a greatest-hits medley of patriotic songs.

Ripley spent days polishing the town for Bush's arrival, and Bush felt the hospitality from the moment he touched down. Eighty-one-year-old Mabel Chapman personally mowed her lawn so it would be in top shape when the president's helicopter landed on it Thursday morning.

For her efforts, Chapman got a hug and a kiss from the president.

After the West Virginia trip, the president spent the night at the White House before escaping the media spotlight for a long weekend.  Bush had no official events planned, and had pre-taped a speech to a NATO gathering in Latvia for Friday night.

"He's going to enjoy a lot of down time, family time, sports time. ... You never know with the Bush family when a game of tennis or some other sporting event will break out," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who added the president plans to take in some fishing and golf.

He is joined by wife Laura Bush, his daughters Jenna and Barbara, sister Doro Koch, brother Marvin and a host of nieces, nephews and family pets.  George H.W. and Barbara Bush own Walker's Point, a six-acre compound that the Bushes have traveled to for the last 100 years. It is one of only six zones nationwide over which aircraft are prohibited to fly.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.