Michael Newdow is an attorney on a mission. A self-professed atheist, he has undertaken a lonely quest to accomplish three things: 1. Have our national motto, “In God We Trust” declared unconstitutional and removed from all currency and other public mentions; 2. Remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance; and 3. Stop newly elected Presidents from uttering the words “so help me, God” at the end of their inaugural oath. Newdow argues that these three references to God amount to a government endorsement of religion, in violation of the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause” (i.e., Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”).
In God We Trust
Newdow’s latest attempt to scrub U.S. currency of the offensive words “In God We Trust” was turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court this week in a simple two word order that all lawyers and many laypersons understand, “certiorari denied.” That case came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which also rejected his arguments.
Newdow’s run at the national motto began in California in a 2006 lawsuit. His claim was denied by a federal district court judge there, and when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard the appeal in 2010, even the liberal judges on that court rejected Newdow’s constitutional argument.
Newdow’s various challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance have suffered a similar fate.
In 2000, Newdow challenged a California public school district that required its teachers to lead their classes in reciting the Pledge every morning. After an initial court victory, the case got mired in procedural issues and even went to the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling on those before being sent back down to the 9th Circuit. Ultimately, however, the 9th Circuit in 2010 upheld the Pledge’s constitutionality.
In 2010 Newdow sued Chief Justice John Roberts, seeking to prevent him from swearing in President Obama using the closing words, “so help me God.” A federal district court judge denied Newdow’s request for a court order directing Roberts not to include those words, ruling that the inclusion of the words was a voluntary choice by incoming presidents, rather than required by the official oath. As such it became a free speech issue. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the lower court.
President George Washington is traditionally credited as beginning the practice of ending his oath with “so help me, God” at his first inauguration, although that account is disputed. Many Presidents since then have adopted the tradition. Newdow’s appeal of that ruling was ultimately turned away by the Supreme Court.
Newdow also sued unsuccessfully to block clergy-led inaugural prayers.
Newdow may perhaps be justifiably criticized for wasting the taxpayer-funded resources of various state and federal courts in his seemingly endless attempts to tilt at constitutional windmills. I’m sympathetic to that point of view. However, I tend to be of the opinion that he’s done us all a favor by bringing these lawsuits.
Since none of his claims have succeeded over a span of two decades, Newdow has unwittingly served to enhance the Founders’ vision of a nation whose origins, set forth in the Declaration of Independence, are firmly grounded in a belief in a Creator, with rights that only a Creator can convey. As court after court affirms our country’s historical and spiritual connection to God, other cases down the road will look to that body of precedent to decide future cases.
The Newdow line of cases is not complicated. The facts are easily understood, the constitutional questions are simple enough, and the judicial opinions have clarified a major area of constitutional inquiry in favor of our historical traditions. We may owe Mr. Newdow a debt of gratitude for his part in all this.