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Atheist sues to ban hand on Bible

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The California lawyer who tried to have the phrase "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance now wants to legally prevent President Bush from placing his hand on a Bible while being sworn in at his inauguration.

Michael Newdow, an atheist doctor and lawyer from Sacramento, has filed a complaint and a motion for preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to remove prayer and all "Christian religious acts" from the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Mr. Newdow, 50, asserts that the presence of Christian ministers who pray publicly at the inauguration, Christian songs and the swearing of the oath of office while a president places a hand on the Bible violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Such practices turn people "into second-class citizens and create division on the basis of religion," he said yesterday.

"It is an offense of the highest magnitude that the leader of our nation -- while swearing to uphold the Constitution -- publicly violates that very document upon taking his oath of office," Mr. Newdow wrote in his Dec. 17 filing. "The demands of strict scrutiny have not been met, and defendants must be enjoined from their planned religious activities."

The Constitution does not require the new president to place his hand on a Bible while repeating the oath. The tradition has been kept since George Washington -- with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt, who did not use a Bible when he took the oath after President William McKinley's 1901 assassination.

The Revs. Franklin Graham and Kirbyjon Caldwell delivered Christian invocations at President Bush's 2001 inauguration. Inaugural organizers have yet to announce who will pray this year, but they confirmed there will be an invocation and a benediction by ministers chosen by the president.

The White House and the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which is one of three inaugural organizational bodies, declined to comment on Mr. Newdow's actions but a response to his filing was due yesterday.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday, Mr. Newdow said.

Mr. Newdow's efforts are "part of a march toward removing every vestige of religion from American public life," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a D.C.-based public interest law firm.

"There is a progressive move toward secularism that we've got to combat pretty aggressively," he said.

The center is filing an amicus brief in support of the defendants in this case..

The legal debate centers on two Supreme Court cases -- Marsh v. Chambers in 1983 and Lee v. Weisman in 1992.

The argument in favor of prayer at the inauguration is based on the establishment of chaplains in Congress at its inception, before the Bill of Rights was passed prohibiting any "law respecting an establishment of religion."

When the presence of chaplains in the Nebraska state legislature was legally challenged in 1983 by Ernest Chambers, a Nebraska lawmaker, the Supreme Court ruled against him, saying the practice had a "special nook" because it was a long-standing practice to have government-paid chaplains.

"The Supreme Court has given its constitutional blessing, so to speak," said Mr. Sekulow. "We should not lose our history and the religious underpinnings it is founded on."

However, Mr. Newdow makes a distinction between prayer in government chambers and prayer at a presidential inauguration.

"This is the most important public ceremony we have in our public existence, the inauguration," he said. "This is public, not just for" lawmakers.

The presence of Christian influence and prayer, Mr. Newdow said, have forced him to contemplate not using his ticket to the inauguration because he does not want to feel like "an outsider."

Mr. Newdow filed a similar suit in the San-Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. The court threw out the suit, calling it "futile" and said that Mr. Newdow had not suffered "a sufficiently concrete and specific injury," the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Newdow first became a national figure when he argued before the Supreme Court last March to remove the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. The court dismissed his case on the grounds that he could not represent his 10-year-old daughter, who is in the custody of his ex-wife and believes in God.

In addition to his quest to remove Christian activities from the inauguration, Mr. Newdow has renewed his quest to remove "under God" from the pledge by filing a new suit in California federal court on behalf of eight other parents.

Mr. Newdow is a licensed minister of atheism, though he says he and members of his Internet church worship nobody. He says church members instead encourage a way of thinking.

"Question everything," said Mr. Newdow, summing up his worldview. "Be honest. Do what's right. Stand up for principle."

When asked how to determine what is right, Mr. Newdow said, "I use my brain."

Mr. Newdow states in his complaint that he "sincerely believes that there is no such thing as god, or God, or any supernatural force." On the contrary, he believes "supernatural" is an oxymoron. "Thus, plaintiff denies the existence of God."

The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, said Mr. Newdow's filing marks "the day we have been warning America would come."

"Mr. Newdow should be ashamed for seeking this injunction against his fellow citizens," he said. "We, as Americans, need to awaken and deal with these threats to religious liberty, cynically disguised as 'civil liberties' defense."

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