Court keeps 'under God' in Pledge
It rules that the California father who brought the case doesn't have legal standing.
The California atheist who took his battle against the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance all the way to the US Supreme Court should have never gotten into a federal courthouse in the first place.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead, his potential blockbuster constitutional law case fizzled away Monday when the nation's highest court ruled that he lacks the necessary legal standing to challenge the Pledge as a violation of the separation of church and state. The action, coming coincidentally on Flag Day, means that schoolchildren nationwide can continue to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, including the words "under God."
In the end, the court may have opted for the most pragmatic route. "It is a way out for the court," says Douglas Laycock, a law professor at University of Texas at Austin. "It was politically impossible to strike it down, and legally impossible to uphold it."
Some legal experts are expressing disappointment that the high court declined to address the broader issue, and many say the decision sets the stage for yet another church-state showdown.
"The justices ducked this constitutional issue today, but it is likely to come back in the future," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Michael Newdow filed suit in objection to his daughter's participation in teacher-led recitation of the Pledge at her elementary school in the Elk Grove school district in California.
In an anticlimactic ending to what would have been a landmark case, the nation's highest court ruled 5 to 3 that Mr. Newdow did not have legal authority to file the lawsuit.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said the US Supreme Court must defer to California domestic court decisions that gave exclusive power to the mother of Newdow's daughter to file such a case.
"This case concerns not merely Newdow's interest in inculcating his child with his views on religion, but also the rights of the child's mother as a parent," Justice Stevens writes. "Most important, it implicates the interests of a young child who finds herself at the center of a highly public debate over her custody, the propriety of a widespread national ritual, and the meaning of our Constitution."
Joining Justice Stevens were Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Justice Antonin Scalia recused himself from the case because of prior public comments he made criticizing an earlier ruling in the case.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas concurred in the outcome but said they would have reached the merits of the case and upheld the Pledge of Allegiance.
"There is no doubt that [Newdow] is sincere in his atheism and rejection of a belief in God," Chief Justice Rehnquist writes. "But the mere fact that he disagrees with this part of the Pledge does not give him a veto power over [recitation of the Pledge]."
By deciding the case based on the standing issue alone, the majority justices avoided addressing the broader and potentially more problematic issue in Newdow's case - whether school recitation of the Pledge amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the government.