Late Wednesday evening, September 14th, a federal judge in California ruled the words “Under God” in the US Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional – it infringed on a person’s protection under the Bill of Rights. The lawyer for the plaintiffs was Michael Newdow.
Some may remember him as the father in a similar case argued before the US Supreme Court in March of 2004. He represented himself before the highest court in the land. Lest you think he was some crack pot he got Justice Scalia, the most vocal opponent of separation of church and state, to recuse himself from the case and pissed off Chief Justice Rehnquist with a biting (and true) rejoinder during his presentation to the court. Here is how the Slate website described it then:
And today, at oral argument in the Pledge of Allegiance case, there is an outburst of partisan clapping in the courtroom. Clapping. In church! I mean … in court! An incensed Rehnquist barks that the “courtroom would be cleared” if he heard any more of this nefarious clapping. Stuff like this just doesn’t happen at the Supreme Court.
[Justice] Breyer says that the pledge serves the purpose of unification at the price of offending only a few. Newdow says that “for 62 years [before it was amended in 1954] the pledge did serve the purpose of unification … it got us through two world wars and a depression.” But he adds that the idea that if adding in “under God” is not divisive, why did the country go “berserk” when the 9th Circuit opinion came down? Rehnquist asks what the vote was in 1954, when it was amended. Newdow says it was unanimous. Rehnquist queries how that reveals divisiveness.
Newdow: “It doesn’t sound divisive? That’s only because no atheist can get elected to Congress.” Here is where people actually applaud like it’s a ball game. And here is where Rehnquist, who may be feeling the sting of Newdow’s comeback, threatens to clear the court. Stevens asks Newdow the same question he asked Olson: whether the words “under God” have the same meaning today as they did when the pledge was amended. Newdow replies that 99 out of 99 senators stopped everything to stand on the steps of the Capitol when the 9th Circuit decision came down.
The court ruled against Newdow in 2004. Not on the merits of the case but on a technicality. It said that since Mr. Newdow didn’t have primary custody of his child, he had no standing to bring the case.
Newdow knew he had a good case so he found 3 families in California to bring another case to court and he is representing them.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that the pledge’s reference to God violates the rights of children in three school districts to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.” — Atheist Gets Victory in ‘Under God’ Case
Religious conservative group The Becket Fund is going to appeal – of course.
Many people, even some Atheists, find Newdow’s cause to be trivial in the political climate today. Some point out that the Patriot Act is a greater offense to civil liberties than the words “under God” in the pledge.
It is true that ANY abridgement of one’s rights is dangerous but none of it is trivial. It can’t be. We have to fight any attempts to abridge our rights because once its done it is near impossible to get them back.
It is not the government’s job to acknowledge religion. No one I know says it should. The only people who do are religious conservatives. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be fighting tooth and nail to keep the words “under God” in the pledge. As Mr. Newdow pointed out on Wednesday:
“Imagine every morning if the teachers had the children stand up, place their hands over their hearts, and say, ‘We are one nation that denies God exists,'” he said.
“I think that everybody would not be sitting here saying, ‘Oh, what harm is that?’ They’d be furious. And that’s exactly what goes on against atheists. And it shouldn’t.”
All he wants, and what all Atheists want, is to return the pledge to its pre-1954 wording, dropping “under God”. As reporter Dahlia Lithwick wrote in the Slate article:
The case is a mess because, whatever you may think about God or the pledge, if you really apply the case law and really think “God” means “God,” then Newdow is right.
Newdow is right and if religious conservatives really cared about religious freedom for all they would do the right thing and stop fighting this battle and let the court return the pledge to the original version.
But we know they don’t care.