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Judge declares 'under God' unconstitutional
San Francisco Chronicle


September 14, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO - Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, saying that the pledge's reference to "under God" violated school children's right to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God."

The suit is the second by Sacramento, Calif., atheist Michael Newdow, who has been trying for five years to remove the pledge from public classrooms.

The Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a party to the case, immediately announced that it would appeal the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

That court already ruled in favor of Newdow's cause in 2002, but the case was later dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In deciding the current case, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento said he was bound by the Court of Appeals' previous decision.

Karlton said he would sign a restraining order prohibiting the recitation of the pledge at Elk Grove Unified, Rio Linda and Elverta Joint Elementary school districts, where the children of Newdow and his fellow plaintiffs are enrolled.

The order would not apply to other California districts unless it was affirmed by a higher court.

Referring to the previous decision in the court of appeals, Karlton wrote, "I conclude that binding precedent requires a narrow resolution of the motions, one which will satisfy no one involved in the debate, but which accords with my duty as a judge of a subordinate court."

In their lawsuit, each of the adult plaintiffs claimed that he or she had "been made to feel like a 'political outsider' due to the 'government's embrace of (Christian) monotheism in the Pledge of Allegiance,' " Karlton wrote.

The original pledge, which did not include the words "under God," was written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister's son, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in America. Congress enacted the pledge in 1942.

The phrase was added in 1954 by legislation that recognized a belief that "from the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God," according to the House Report accompanying its passage.

California law requires that public elementary schools conduct "appropriate patriotic exercises" at the beginning of the school day.

In a final footnote, Karlton mused that the "ultimate resolution" of the issue "depends on the shifting, subjective sensibilities of any five members of the High Court, leaving those of us who work in the vineyard without guidance. . . . As preposterous as it might seem, given the lack of boundaries, a case could be made for substituting 'under Christ' for 'under God,' . . . thus marginalizing not only atheists and agnostics, but also Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Confucians, Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious adherents."


Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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