Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, California, 2000-2004

Image: Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, California, 2000-2004

In March of 2000, atheist Michael Newdow sued on behalf of his daughter to strip the words “under God” from the Pledge recited by students in California public schools.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later agreed that public schools violate the First Amendment by leading their students in a voluntary recitation of the Pledge that includes the words “under God.” Although the Supreme Court initially agreed to give full review of the case, in June, 2004, the Court opted to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on a technicality: Newdow lacked sufficient custody of his daughter to represent her in federal court.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an amicus curiae (“friend-of-the-court”) brief before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Knights of Columbus, demonstrating that the phrase “under God” is not only constitutionally permissible but philosophically laudable.

The brief argues that historical references to the “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” are not primarily religious. Instead, such phrases embody our Founder’s political philosophy. When recited in the Pledge, the words “under God” primarily reflect the principle that no government can undermine our rights because they emanate from a higher source than the state.

By adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, Congress starkly contrasted mutually exclusive conceptions of human rights envisioned by the United States and the U.S.S.R.

Although three Justices—Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Thomas—affirmed the constitutionality of the Pledge, it was disappointing to see the Court sidestep the merits and rule on standing. As the Becket Fund’s Founder Seamus Hasson said, “You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out. It’s a shame the Court couldn’t unify around the same principle that has been unifying the rest of us since the Declaration of Independence: our rights are secure because they come from a higher authority than the state. Sooner or later, the Court will have to face up to that.”

 

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