Law & Courts

Justices Decline Request To Add Parents to Pledge Of Allegiance Case

By Caroline Hendrie — February 04, 2004 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court last week turned down a request by an atheist father to have two like-minded parents added to his case challenging a California school district’s policy of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Michael A. Newdow had hoped that adding the couple would settle questions about his own legal standing to wage his court battle against the pledge, which he believes violates the U.S. Constitution because of its reference to “one nation under God.”

In a ruling that touched off a political furor, the federal appeals court in San Francisco held in 2002 that classroom recitations of the pledge effectively endorse monotheism and thus violate parents’ rights to send their children to schools free from religious indoctrination.

The Elk Grove Unified School District, where Dr. Newdow’s daughter attends 4th grade, argues that Dr. Newdow lacks standing because of questions related to a custody battle between him and the girl’s mother, a Christian who does not object to the pledge.

In agreeing to take up the district’s appeal, the high court said it would specifically consider the question of Dr. Newdow’s legal standing, as well as whether Elk Grove’s policy of requiring teacher-led recitations of the pledge violates the First Amendment’s prohibition of government-established religion (“Pledge Case to Go Before High Court,” Oct. 22, 2003.) The court is set to hear oral arguments in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (Case No. 02-1624) on March 24. Dr. Newdow, a physician who also has a law degree, plans to represent himself.

Dr. Newdow’s Dec. 30 motion to add parties to the case featured a statement from an atheist couple with a child in the Elk Grove schools who said they were “in total agreement” with him about the pledge.

“To have that religious indoctrination—or any religious indoctrination—performed by public school employees in the public school setting is directly contrary to our wishes in guiding our child’s religious upbringing,” said the couple, who were identified in court papers by the pseudonyms Jan and Pat Doe.

Describing the couple as “happily married,” Dr. Newdow argued that allowing them to join the case would render the custody issue moot, “and the court would be able to attend to the extremely important Establishment Clause issues without the needless dilution of its limited and valuable resources.”

In his motion, Dr. Newdow pointed to other cases in which the high court agreed to add parties to resolve questions of standing, including a school desegregation case in which students were added to replace those who were graduating.

But court papers filed by the Bush administration, which is supporting the 55,000-student Elk Grove district in the dispute, countered that the justices cannot add parties to give a case proper legal footing if such standing did not exist in the first place, as it did in the desegregation case.

The high court denied Dr. Newdow’s motion without comment on Jan. 26.

Youth Death Penalty

Meanwhile, the justices agreed last week to consider the question of whether the death penalty should be abolished for juvenile offenders.

In Roper v. Simmons (No. 03-633), the high court agreed on Jan. 26 to accept the appeal of a ruling last August in which the Missouri Supreme Court overturned a death sentence against Christopher Simmons. Mr. Simmons was a 17-year-old high school student when he murdered a woman in 1993 by throwing her off a bridge after burglarizing her home.

The state high court held in the case that imposing capital punishment on offenders who were under 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

Arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court should not consider the state’s appeal, lawyers for Mr. Simmons cited figures suggesting that the number of minors sentenced to death is on the wane, and that the actual execution of juvenile offenders has become rare nationally, except in the state of Texas.

But the state argued in court papers that the Supreme Court’s guidance was needed to settle the important question of how old offenders must be before their crimes may warrant capital punishment, “particularly in an era when the imposition of adult penalties on juvenile offenders has become more common.”

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