Judge: School Pledge Is Unconstitutional

SAN FRANCISCO — An atheist seeking to strike the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools has won a major battle in his quest to force the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue again.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton sided with atheist Michael Newdow in ruling Wednesday that the pledge’s reference to God violates the rights of children in three school districts to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.”

Karlton said he was bound by precedent of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2002 ruled in favor of Newdow that the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools.

The latest decision could set up another church-state showdown at a time when the Supreme Court is in flux. John Roberts, who would succeed the late William H. Rehnquist as chief justice, is undergoing confirmation hearings, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is retiring when a successor is confirmed.

The Supreme Court dismissed the case last year, saying Newdow lacked standing because he did not have custody of his elementary school daughter he sued on behalf of.

Newdow, an attorney and a medical doctor, filed an identical case on behalf of three unnamed parents and their children. Karlton said those families have the right to sue.

Newdow is hoping to get the high court to remove the pledge’s reference to God and restore its pre-1954 wording, “one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

“All it has to do is put the pledge as it was before, and say that we are one nation, indivisible, instead of dividing us on religious basis,” Newdow told The Associated Press.

Karlton said he would sign a restraining order preventing the recitation of the pledge at the Elk Grove Unified, Rio Linda and Elverta Joint Elementary school districts in Sacramento County, where the plaintiffs’ children attend.

The order would not extend beyond those districts unless it is affirmed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in which case it could apply to nine western states, or the Supreme Court, which would apply to all states.

Superintendent Steven Ladd of Elk Grove Unified School District said the pledge will be recited until the school receives the judge’s restraining order, which could happen any day.

“Our board has long supported the Pledge of Allegiance as an appropriate patriotic exercise for willing students,” he said.

Karlton, appointed to the Sacramento bench by President Carter, wrote that the case concerned “the ongoing struggle as to the role of religion in the civil life of this nation” and added that his opinion “will satisfy no one involved in that debate.”

In the Supreme Court’s 5-3 ruling dismissing Newdow’s previous case, justices Rehnquist, O’Connor and Clarence Thomas accused the majority of using Newdow’s standing to dodge the harder constitutional issue. In their dissent, they said they would have upheld “under God” as constitutional.

The Becket Fund, a religious rights group that is a party to the case, said it would immediately appeal the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the court does not change its precedent, the group would go to the Supreme Court.

“It’s a way to get this issue to the Supreme Court for a final decision to be made,” said fund attorney Jared Leland.

The decisions by Karlton and the appeals court conflict with an August opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. That court upheld a Virginia law requiring public schools lead daily Pledge of Allegiance recitation, which is similar to the requirement in California.

Professors, politicians, pundits, religious groups and others immediately weighed in on the latest decision. Richard Ellis, a Willamette University politics professor who wrote “To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance,” said the stakes are high.

“For some people, the pledge is a statement that the United States is a chosen nation, that the United States is a nation under God, that it is God’s chosen nation,” Ellis said. “For others,” he said, “it reflects their belief in God.”

For Newdow, that’s precisely the problem.

“Imagine every morning if the teachers had the children stand up, place their hands over their hearts, and say, ‘We are one nation that denies God exists,'” he said.

“I think that everybody would not be sitting here saying, ‘Oh, what harm is that?’ They’d be furious. And that’s exactly what goes on against atheists. And it shouldn’t.”

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Associated Press, via the Washington Post, USA
Sep. 15, 2005
David Kravets

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday September 15, 2005.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.