- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Michael Newdow, the atheist whose landmark court case on whether the words “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, told Supreme Court justices yesterday that patriotism should not be mixed with piety.

“Every morning, government agents have children stand up, including my daughter, and have them affirm this nation is under a religious deity who many people, including myself, do not accept,” he said. “My daughter is forced to stand up and say, ‘My father is wrong.’”

Mr. Newdow did not have legal custody of his daughter when he filed the case in 2000 and has fought for years to counteract the Christian environment in which the child, age 9, is being raised.

The girl’s mother, Sandra Banning, who does have custody, never married Mr. Newdow, who she said yesterday “was very well-spoken.”

“He showed as much passion in front of the Supreme Court today,” she told reporters, “as he shows in family court.”

Mr. Newdow, a California emergency-room physician who also holds a law degree, filed Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow. He is arguing the case himself, which is unusual for a plaintiff before the Supreme Court.

America’s traditional friendliness toward religion and deeply felt belief in God should not be worded in a Pledge recited by millions of schoolchildren, Mr. Newdow told the court. But skeptical justices brought up several instances of religious language in American public life and challenged Mr. Newdow on whether two words could force anyone into faith.

“We have so many references to God in our daily lives in our country,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said. “Today, we opened our court with ‘God save the United States and this honorable court.’ ”

“But,” Mr. Newdow said, “no one is forced to stand up and put their hand on their heart to affirm that.”

“Do you,” Justice O’Connor asked, “have a problem with ‘In God We Trust’ on coins?”

“Only if my daughter is forced to say, ‘In God We Trust,’” the father said.

Two justices reminded him again his daughter was not being forced to say anything.

“She is not required, but she is being coerced,” Mr. Newdow said. “It seems like the government is imposing on her what it thinks of religion.”

The Pledge is overwhelmingly popular among Americans, according to an Associated Press poll released yesterday that found nine out of 10 people favor retaining the phrase “under God.”

Two justices suggested the Pledge’s wording was tame compared to other public pronouncements.

“‘In the Year of our Lord’ is more problematic because it refers to a specific Lord rather than a non-specific God,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked, “If a school district asked a child to sing ‘God Bless America,’ is that wrong?”

“Yes,” Mr. Newdow said.

“Well, ‘God Bless America’ is more of a prayer than is the Pledge,” said Justice Ginsburg.

Mr. Newdow disagreed, explaining the Pledge is “the government saying there is a God.”

“But she doesn’t have to say the Pledge,” Justice Ginsburg insisted.

“The issue is whether the government can even put that thought in her mind,” Mr. Newdow said.

Terence J. Cassidy, the attorney for the school district, said public schools around the country have long accommodated students who wish to opt out of the Pledge.

“The Pledge is part of a teaching program,” Mr. Cassidy said. “We’re talking about national unity and citizenship of your young students. We believe ‘one nation under God’ reflects a political philosophy of limited government.”

Justice David H. Souter seemed to think the case has little merit.

“Religion in this country is so diluted … it goes underneath the constitutional radar,” he said. “Insofar as the way we live and think and work in schools and civic society … whatever religious direction there is, is simply lost.”

When a justice asked Mr. Newdow whether the 1954 act of Congress that added the words “under God” was unanimous, Mr. Newdow agreed it was.

“That doesn’t sound divisive to me,” the justice said.

“That’s because no atheists could get elected to public office,” Mr. Newdow said, at which point the crowded courtroom burst into laughter. When some clapped, Justice Rehnquist threatened to shut down the hearing.

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