- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist yesterday denied without comment a California atheist’s request for an injunction to bar clergy-led prayer during President Bush’s inauguration today.

Chief Justice Rehnquist’s decision sent atheist Michael Newdow’s lawsuit back to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where Judge John D. Bates has asked for additional filings in the case. But it halted Mr. Newdow’s effort to prevent clergy-led inaugural prayers today.

Mr. Newdow refiled his request to Justice John Paul Stephens, who also rejected it.

“This is an important statement by the Supreme Court in upholding inaugural prayer — a time-honored tradition that’s been a part of the history and heritage of our nation,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a D.C.-based public-interest law firm.

“There simply is no constitutional conflict by permitting a member of the clergy to offer prayer for the president and the nation at the inaugural ceremony,” he said.

Nonetheless, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, executive director of the Christian Defense Coalition, expressed concern about the case’s long-term effect.

“Michael Newdow is not a person to be taken lightly. He is relentless in his views, and the fact that Judge Bates is allowing some of the case to go on should alarm those who cherish religious liberty in the public square,” Mr. Mahoney said. “The faith community needs to be as passionate and as determined as [he] is for his cause.”

However, Mr. Newdow, a lawyer from Sacramento, Calif., said losing his bid for an injunction puts the rest of his case “in limbo.”

Judge Bates “can now say it’s moot because the inauguration is over,” he said.

If that happens, Mr. Newdow said, he likely will file suit again before the 2009 inauguration. He would file on behalf of someone else planning to attend the inauguration who is an atheist or opposes inaugural prayer.

Inaugural prayer is “wrong and everybody knows it, and somebody needs to change it,” he said.

Mr. Newdow, 51, has argued that inaugural prayer violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

He also said in court that prayer by Christian ministers is akin to racial discrimination because it makes him, a staunch atheist, feel like an “outsider.” He contended that prayer at such a public event is a declaration that America is a “Christian nation.”

During Mr. Bush’s inauguration in 2001, the Rev. Franklin Graham and the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell said prayers. Today, the Rev. Luis Leon, pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Mr. Bush worships when he is in Washington, is scheduled to deliver an invocation. Mr. Caldwell is set to offer the benediction. Both clergymen were chosen by the president.

Chief Justice Rehnquist will administer the oath of office, a fact Mr. Newdow noted in his injunction request to the high court. He had suggested that Chief Justice Rehnquist recuse himself from considering his request, saying the chief justice might feel “awkward” at the ceremony if he granted it.

In rejecting Mr. Newdow’s request, Judge Bates last week said clergy-led prayer does not necessarily violate the Constitution and that courts do not have power in most cases to order the president to “take an official act.” The judge ruled that an injunction against clergy-led prayers would not serve the public interest and would disrupt a carefully planned inaugural ceremony.

Judge Bates also noted in his decision that “inaugural prayer can be traced to the founding of this country” and has been a part of inaugurations since 1937.

Mr. Newdow gained national attention when he argued before the Supreme Court in March for the removal of the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. The court dismissed his case on the grounds that Mr. Newdow could not represent his 10-year-old daughter, who is in the custody of her mother, who believes in God.

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