Law & Courts

A Doctor, Lawyer, and Father Leads Battle Against Pledge

By Caroline Hendrie — October 22, 2003 2 min read
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For sale at $14.92 on Michael A. Newdow’s Web site is a compact disc of 11 songs—from a blues ballad about the Pledge of Allegiance to a rap urging those who need religion to “get your booty to church"—all written and performed by the self-styled First Amendment crusader himself.

When a job needs doing, Dr. Newdow says he has found, there’s no substitute for just doing it yourself.

Never mind that he had handled nothing more than a small-claims case before launching his headline-grabbing lawsuit to strip the words “under God” from the pledge, which is recited daily in the public elementary school where his 9-year-old daughter is in the 4th grade. An emergency-room physician who earned his law degree at night, Dr. Newdow has represented himself throughout the 3½-year legal saga.

And now that the case has landed on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court, he has no intention of stepping aside to let a more seasoned legal counselor take over.

“Ah, it’s going to be nothing,” the 50-year-old father said last week from his home in Sacramento, Calif. “The law is so overwhelmingly on my side. This is not going to be a difficult case.”

Dr. Newdow is convinced that the justices will agree with him that public schools trample on the rights of religious minorities when they subject impressionable children to the “unconstitutional indoctrination” of reciting the pledge. Dr. Newdow views the pledge’s mention of God as a government endorsement of religion that belittles his atheistic beliefs.

But whether the nation’s highest court will ever fully consider that argument remains a question mark, largely because of complications arising from a bitter custody battle between Dr. Newdow and his daughter’s mother.

Sandra L. Banning, whom Dr. Newdow never married, has repeatedly made clear that she wants her daughter to recite the pledge, and that she objects to having the child, who has not been named publicly, implicated in the lawsuit.

Nevertheless, a federal appeals court allowed Dr. Newdow to press the case himself, and the high court will review that. A California family-court judge restored Dr. Newdow’s joint legal custody last month. In a subsequent letter to the Supreme Court, Dr. Newdow said he hoped that the change would clear up the issue of his legal standing, but he acknowledged it might not.

These days, Dr. Newdow finds little time to practice medicine. As much attention as the pledge case has garnered, his primary focus appears to be his ongoing battle to win more time with his daughter.

But he says he wouldn’t consider leaving the task of fighting for his rights to anyone else.

“My child goes to school every day, and she’s told her father’s religious-belief system is a second-class belief system,” he said. “It’s a harm, irrespective of my custody.”

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