Law & Courts

Federal Judge Strikes Down School-Led Pledge Recitations

By Catherine Gewertz — September 20, 2005 3 min read
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A federal judge in California ruled last week that public-school-led recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional, a decision that could pave the way for another round of debate over separation of church and state just as the U.S. Supreme Court’s membership is changing.

The Sept. 14 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento came in a second lawsuit by Michael A. Newdow, the atheist who garnered national attention last year when he argued a similar case before the nation’s highest court.

“The whole basis of this lawsuit is that we treat everyone equally in term of their religious beliefs,” Dr. Newdow, who is a physician as well as a lawyer, said in an interview. “It’s clearly not equal for government to come in and say there is a God, when in fact there are many American citizens and others who deny that.”

Judge Karlton wrote that although the case had become “something of a cause celebre in the ongoing struggle” over the role of religion in public life, he was legally obliged to resolve it in a way that “will satisfy no one.”

Because the Supreme Court did not address the constitutional question when it decided Dr. Newdow’s case last year, Judge Karlton wrote, he must treat the ruling on that issue by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit as binding precedent and abide by it.

The San Francisco-based appeals court held in 2002 that a teacher-led recitation of the pledge in a public school violates children’s right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.”

Judge Karlton said he would bar the three school districts named in the lawsuit from pledge recitations if he were asked to do so. Terence J. Cassidy, a lawyer representing those districts, said he would ask the judge to delay any such action while they appeal that part of the decision.

Mr. Cassidy said it was likely that the districts would appeal the ruling on the constitutional question.

Steven M. Ladd, the superintendent of California’s 58,000-student Elk Grove Unified School District, where the daughter of Dr. Newdow and one of the children of the other plaintiffs are enrolled, said in a statement that the school board “has long supported the Pledge of Allegiance as an appropriate patriotic exercise for willing students.”

Split Reaction

The decision drew swift reaction. Jay A. Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, based in Washington, called it “another example of a federal district court exhibiting hostility toward a time-honored tradition,” and he expressed the hope that a higher court would overturn it.

Ayesha Khan, the legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also based in Washington, said the decision recognizes that “it is wrong for public schools to ask students to affirm a religious belief in order to express their patriotism.”

Dr. Newdow won before the 9th Circuit court in 2002. But the Supreme Court, without ruling on the constitutional question, dismissed the Elk Grove district’s appeal of the decision in 2004, saying Dr. Newdow lacked standing to proceed because of custodial issues with his daughter’s mother. (“Pledge Stays Intact as Justices Dismiss Atheist’s Challenge,” June 23, 2004.)

When Dr. Newdow filed a second suit last January, he attempted to bolster the case by including as co-plaintiffs two other sets of parents, whose children attend school in the Elk Grove, Elverta Joint Elementary, and Rio Linda school districts.

Judge Karlton granted legal standing to those families, but said Dr. Newdow still lacked standing to proceed on behalf of his daughter. He may still represent them as a lawyer.

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Federal Judge Strikes Down School-Led Pledge Recitations

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