The New York Times


September 19, 2005

One Father, Back in Court, Indefatigable

Michael Newdow, the doctor who does not want his daughter to say "under God" when she recites the Pledge of Allegiance in school, has managed to get his cause back into the federal courts. Mr. Newdow is certainly tenacious, but his lawsuit is a misguided distraction from real challenges to the First Amendment.

The last time Mr. Newdow sued, he won in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which said reciting the pledge, while not compulsory, still "impermissibly coerces a religious act." The Supreme Court ducked, ruling that Mr. Newdow did not have standing to sue because he didn't have custody of his daughter. So he went back to court, with two other families with schoolchildren in the Sacramento area, where his daughter lives.

Last week, a federal judge again rejected Mr. Newdow's standing but ruled in favor of the two families. Judge Lawrence Karlton said he had no choice, given the appeals court ruling, but acknowledged that the decision would "satisfy no one involved." He's right - except for demagogues on both sides.

The phrase "under God" was inserted into the pledge in 1954 in an absurd attempt to link patriotism with religious piety at the height of anti-Communist mania. It should never have happened.

But in the half-century since, the phrase has become part of the backdrop of life. It hardly amounts to a prayer and is no more a constitutional violation than the singing of "God Bless America" at the Army-Navy football game. No child is required to say "under God" when reciting the pledge - or even to recite it at all. The court cases trivialize the critical constitutional issue of separation of church and state, and undermine important battles to be fought over prayer in school and the use of public money to support religious activities.

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