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Liberal News and Commentary
Sunday, August 11, 2002

Newdow, Sherman Discuss "Pledge" Strategy

      Wasn't the decision in the Pledge of Allegiance case wonderful?  Now, thanks to Plaintiff Michael Newdow of California and Federal Judges Goodwin and Reinhardt, we can all say the Pledge.

      On Friday, the San Francisco office of United States Attorney General John Ashcroft filed a brief with the United States Court of Appeals, asking for a second chance to win the case.  Yesterday, I spoke by telephone with Michael Newdow to discuss strategy for sustaining his big victory.

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      One of the issues in dispute is whether the Plaintiff in the case has a legitimate claim to standing.  Michael pointed out the he, not his daughter, is the Plaintiff.  The government has challenged the legitimacy of Michael's standing by claiming that it is his daughter, not he, that is involved in recitation of the Pledge.  Michael's response to that is that a parent who is attempting to raise his daughter as an atheist should not have to compete with the government for what theological opinion a child should subscribe to.

      I commented to Michael that, in fact, he is a particularly appropriate plaintiff.  His family situation is one in which the two parents have different theological opinions.  It is outrageous that the government would take it upon itself to side with one parent over the other on which opinion that the couple's child should subscribe to.  Newdow, therefore, is a particularly appropriate plaintiff because a child of elementary school age is particularly vulnerable to being pressured into siding with one parent about religion if it has been made clear to her by Big Government that it sides with that particular parent's opinion about religion.

      Another issue pertains to custody.  The government challenges Newdow's standing because the mother of his daughter currently has custody.  Newdow told me that the matter of custody is still being litigated and could change at any time.  Therefore, the government's challenge is without merit.

      I also spoke to Newdow about the Supreme Court assertions that "In god we trust" and "One nation under god" were mere ceremonial deism.  I said that such a claim may have been true (although it probably wasn't) at the time of the ruling, about twenty years ago.  However, ever since then, conservatives and Christians have aggressively used those phrases as proselytizing weapons in government settings.  The premise they use is that the Supreme Court has immunized those phrases from claims that they advance religion, so Christians are therefore free to use those phrases as much as they want to advance religion.

      The government claims, on page 12 of the brief filed on Friday, that when Congress added "In god we trust" to the Pledge in 1954, it was done strictly for the "secular purpose of acknowledging our nation's religious heritage."  Newdow and I strongly dispute that claim.  Adding the phrase to the Pledge had nothing, whatsoever, to do with acknowledging a religious heritage in our nation.  It was done during the Cold War to differentiate our country from an enemy that was an atheistic country. 

      Regardless of whether the Pledge decision is sustained, the cat is out of the bag.  The federal government, thanks to Judges Goodwin and Reinhardt, has forever acknowledged that inclusion of the offensive phrase in the Pledge is, indeed, unconstitutional because it advances religion over atheism and it makes god-believers political insiders while making atheists political outsiders.  The only issue left to decide is whether or not atheists have gained sufficient political clout in this country for our rights to be protected by the courts.

      Conservative Christians scream loudly about how they oppose special rights for gays, yet these same folks are demanding that the courts sustain special rights for god-believers by having the government recognize their opinion about religion in the Pledge and on our money and, by implication, repudiate atheism.  Atheists don't want the government to endorse our opinion about religion.  We just want the government to return to neutrality about religion.

      Many Christians claim that neutrality about religion is hostility against religion, but that claim is false.  Neutrality about religion is just that.  It neither endorses nor condemns religion.  That's what the Constitution requires, and that's what Michael Newdow, Judge Goodwin, Judge Reinhardt and I are all fighting for.

      You can read all of the court briefs in the Newdow case at Michael Newdow's web site.

         Rob Sherman          

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