Sunday, January 9, 2005

California atheist Michael Newdow said yesterday that his legal attack on “Christian religious acts” in this year’s presidential inauguration specifically targets only those performed by clergymen.

“I have never sued to have anyone keep his or her hand off of a Bible,” Mr. Newdow said in response to yesterday’s story published in The Washington Times regarding his lawsuit. “As my prayer for relief and judgment specifies, I sought only the prohibition of using clergymen to further religion.”

Mr. Newdow filed his 16-page complaint Dec. 17 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The demands of strict scrutiny have not been met and defendants must be enjoined from their planned religious activities,” the lawsuit states.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday.

The lawsuit also states: “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 also said yesterday he sought “only the respect and equal protection that the Constitution requires from our government.”

Mr. Newdow, 50, a doctor, lawyer and licensed minister of atheism, says Christian ministers praying publicly at the inauguration violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

At President Bush’s 2001 inauguration, two ministers, the Rev. Franklin Graham and the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, delivered Christian invocations. Inauguration organizers have yet to announce who will pray this year, but confirmed there will be an invocation and a benediction by ministers chosen by the president.

Such prayers turn non-Christians “into second-class citizens and create division on the basis of religion,” Mr. Newdow said Friday.

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 clergy at the inauguration is based on the establishment of chaplains in Congress at its inception, before the Bill of Rights was passed including a prohibition of any “law respecting an establishment of religion.”

When the presence of chaplains in the Nebraska 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 tradition to have government-paid chaplains.

“The Supreme Court has given its constitutional blessing, so to speak,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a District-based public-interest law firm. “We should not lose our history and the religious underpinnings it is founded on.”

Mr. Newdow filed a similar suit in San Francisco’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. The court threw out the suit, calling it “futile” and saying 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 lacked standing and could not represent his 10-year-old daughter, who is in the custody of his ex-wife and believes in God.

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