Michael Newdow

Photo by Brent Nicastro Photo by Brent Nicastro

On this date in 1953, Michael Arthur Newdow, an attorney and emergency room physician, was born to nominally Jewish parents. He grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and Teaneck, N.J., and earned a B.S. in biology from Brown University. In 2004 he told Brown's alumni magazine that "I was born an atheist." He graduated from UCLA's medical school in 1978 and earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1988. In 1977, he was ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church, based in Modesto, Calif., a "church" which has but one basic tenet: "Do only that which is right." In 1997, Newdow formed an organization called FACTS (First Atheist Church of True Science), which advocates for a strong wall between state and church. Newdow has filed several lawsuits challenging the mingling of religion and government. One, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004. The issues at hand: Whether a public school district policy that required teachers to lead students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which included the words "under God," was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and whether Newdow had legal "standing" on behalf of his daughter to challenge the policy. (The 9th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in his favor in 2002 that "under God" in school pledges was unconstitutional. Circuit Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, a 79-year-old Nixon appointee, famously wrote: "A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god.' "

The appeals court ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-3 that Newdow didn't have standing in the case because he didn't have sufficient custody over his daughter, whose mother had primary custody. "No one who managed to get a seat in the courtroom is likely ever to forget his spellbinding performance," New York Times court reporter Linda Greenhouse said of Newdow's oral argument. What he saw as unconstitutional endorsement of religion led Newdow to file other suits, including one to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. coins and currency and others to block religious invocations at presidential inaugurations, use of "so help me God" when administering the oath of office and use of official chaplains in Congress. The Freedom From Religion Foundation named Newdow its Freethinker of the Year in 2002 and a Freethought Hero in 2004.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Every school morning in the Elk Grove Unified School District's public schools, government agents, teachers, funded with tax dollars, have their students stand up, including my daughter, face the flag of the United States of America, place their hands over their hearts, and affirm that ours is a nation under some particular religious entity, the appreciation of which is not accepted by numerous people, such as myself. We cannot in good conscience accept the idea that there exists a deity.

I am an atheist. I don't believe in God.

And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.

—Michael Newdow's oral argument to the U.S. Supreme Court, March 24, 2004 (

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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