In Lawsuits He Trusts

March 2011

If there’s one thing about Michael Newdow on which we can all agree, it’s that there’s no quit in him. Who in the world is Michael Newdow, you ask? His isn’t a household name, not by a long shot, but anybody who’s followed U.S. politics over the past decade knows him for what he’s done: He’s the atheist who almost succeeded in having the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. Yes, that Michael Newdow.

In 2002 Newdow brought a suit before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco arguing that it was unconstitutional for his daughter to have to say the words “under God” at a public school. In June of that year, the Ninth Court took the nation by surprise by ruling that the phrase amounts to a government endorsement of religion, in violation of the “establishment clause” in the U.S. Constitution. Suddenly, Newdow found himself in the harsh glare of the limelight, and the man who had worked for years as an itinerant emergency-room doctor was now on the receiving end of ridicule in the press, anger from politicians of both major parties, and ire from his fellow citizens, including numerous death threats.

Newdow’s victory — and his moment of intense in­famy — was, however, short-lived. In 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the Ninth Court’s ruling based on a technicality: Newdow did not have custody of his daughter and therefore did not have the legal standing to bring a lawsuit on her behalf. Newdow’s ex-girlfriend, a born-again Christian, retains sole custody of their daughter, and she has maintained that their daughter does not object to saying the Pledge. Oops.

Undeterred, Newdow tried again in 2005, this time bringing suit on behalf of three unnamed parents and their children, who did have the right to sue. U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Carlton, who said he was bound by the precedent set by the Ninth Court, ruled in New­dow’s favor. Schoolchildren, he wrote, should be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.” Success, yes; but in a limited range — the ruling affected only three California school districts.

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New Oxford Notes: March 2011

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