September 15, 2005
Judge Rules Reciting Pledge In Schools Is Unconstitutional
By DEAN E. MURPHYA federal judge in Sacramento ruled Wednesday that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, once again igniting a firestorm over the appropriateness of the pledge's reference to ''under God.''
The judge, Lawrence K. Karlton of Federal District Court, said that the decision would ''satisfy no one involved'' in the debate over ''the role of religion in the civil life of this nation,'' but that he was bound by a ruling in 2002 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.
In that ruling, the Ninth Circuit concluded the recitation of the pledge, even if noncompulsory, ''impermissibly coerces a religious act'' and ''places students in the untenable position of choosing between participating in an exercise with religious content or protesting.''
The ruling Wednesday was denounced by conservative religious groups that urged its appeal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, issued a similar plea.
Judge Karlton's decision came in a lawsuit brought by Michael Newdow, an atheist whose daughter attends a public school in Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento, and two families with children in two other school districts in the Sacramento area.
Mr. Newdow lost a similar case last year when the United States Supreme Court ruled that he had no legal standing to bring the lawsuit because he did not have custody of his daughter. The justices left open the question of the pledge's constitutionality, prompting Mr. Newdow to try again with the additional plaintiffs.
Judge Karlton said that Mr. Newdow still lacked standing, but ruled that the two families, who were not identified in the lawsuit, were entitled to sue. Mr. Newdow said that he was disappointed but not surprised by the determination on his standing, but that the decision on the pledge's constitutionality would apply to all students in the three school districts.
''It will still affect my child as much as anyone else's,'' he said in a telephone interview from El Paso, where he was working at a hospital.
A spokesman for the Elk Grove Unified School District said teachers were notified Wednesday that they should continue leading students in the pledge because the judge's ruling did not include an injunction stopping the practice. Judge Karlton indicated that he would issue an injunction if one was requested, but Mr. Newdow said that he had not decided whether to seek one.
''I will probably do that, but I have clients now I have to talk to first,'' said Mr. Newdow, who is the lawyer in the case in addition to being a doctor. ''Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to read this thing yet.''
At a news conference attended by officials from the three districts, Steven M. Ladd, the Elk Grove superintendent, said that no decision on an appeal had been made but that he would not be surprised if the schools challenged the ruling ''so as to resolve this matter once and for all.''
The Elk Grove district defended itself against the previous lawsuit by Mr. Newdow. ''Our board has long supported the Pledge of Allegiance as an appropriate patriotic exercise for willing students,'' Mr. Ladd said. ''We are disappointed that our district, as well as two other school districts listed in this complaint, need to continue to devote time, energy, and resources to defend this case. These are resources we could otherwise use on our mission of teaching and learning.''
A lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious rights group that has joined the school districts in defending the case, said there was no doubt the ruling would be appealed.
The group's lawyer, Jared N. Leland, said he would not be surprised if the issue ended up before the Supreme Court, particularly since the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last month upheld a law in Virginia that requires the recitation of the pledge in public schools. That court found that the pledge was ''a patriotic activity'' not a religious one.
In the Supreme Court's ruling dismissing Mr. Newdow's previous lawsuit, the three dissenting justices indicated they would have upheld the constitutionality of ''under God'' had the case gone forward. The phrase was added to the pledge in 1954.