Michael Newdow, the Sacramento doctor who is challenging "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, asked Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in early September to recuse himself from participating in Newdow's appeal. The atheist father, who is also an attorney bringing the legal action himself, won a landmark ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last summer declaring "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to be unconstitutional. The original decision declared the 1954 insertion of "under God" into the once-secular pledge to be unconstitutional on its face. In February 2003, the Ninth Circuit panel amended its decision to apply only in public school settings. Newdow has asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the original, broader ruling. The Sacramento school district, with blessings from the U.S. Justice Department, is also appealing. The Court is expected to consider whether to hear the appeals during a closed-door session on Sept. 29. It could turn back the appeals, thereby letting stand the Ninth Circuit ruling, which applies to ten western states. It could vacate the Ninth Circuit decision, as requested by the Justice Department and the school district. Or it could accept the case. Newdow filed a brief, "Suggestion for Recusal of Justice Scalia," on Sept. 5, pointing out that Scalia gave a speech in January alluding to the Ninth Circuit decision as a prime example of how courts are misinterpreting the Constitution. At a Knights of Columbus rally in Fredericksburg, Va., the Catholic justice said framers didn't intend to "exclude God from the public forums and from political life." Newdow's brief noted the "firestorm of controversy" erupting when the opinion was issued. "The associated passions--though understandable--are the very reason we have an Establishment Clause, and, perhaps in this arena more than any other, it is essential that the judiciary present a neutral front." The brief argues that statements and activities by Scalia call his impartiality into question. Newdow noted that Scalia's decision to make these remarks to the Knights of Columbus is noteworthy because the group claims responsibility for leading the effort to insert the words "under God" into the pledge. Since Scalia made his statements, the Knights of Columbus has even submitted a brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit. Scalia's "voluntary, disapproving statements about the lower court's ruling--in a case obviously destined to come before him--is at odds with the code of conduct for United States judges," Newdow further noted. Precedent has emphasized not the reality of bias but its appearance, he wrote. A survey released in August on the status of Pledge of Allegiance laws by the Education Commission of States documents that 35 states currently require schools to include recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. At least ten states have a pledge for their state flag, but Texas this fall became the only state requiring students to recite it in school. On July 15, U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelley ruled that Pennsylvania's statute violates student's First Amendment right to free expression. The court issued a permanent injunction against the Pennsylvania law. Colorado's new law has been blocked by a temporary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock on Aug. 15. The judge found that the new law discriminates against teachers because there is no provision for them to opt out, as there is for students. The judge criticized the law for pitting students who say the pledge against those who do not, as well as pitting students against teachers. "What is instructional about that?" Babcock asked. He said the law could conceivably lead to suspensions for students and firings for teachers. The challenge was taken by the ACLU on behalf of nine teachers and students from four Denver-area districts. The injunction is in effect through the end of the 2004 legislative session at the request of the state attorney general's office. The legislature is expected to amend the law to address some of the court concerns next year. In other developments, the U.S. House, by a 307-119 margin, passed an amendment in July by Rep. John Hostettler, R-IN, prohibiting enforcement of the Ninth Circuit pledge decision. That amendment was actually opposed by the Justice Department, which said such legislation could complicate the appeal. A second amendment, adopted by a 260-161 vote, prohibited use of federal money to enforce the 11th Circuit's ruling against Judge Roy Moore. The intent was to bar the U.S. Marshals Service from enforcing either decision. "These amendments are essentially meaningless. But these votes do show a shocking contempt by a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives--not just for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, but for a free and independent judiciary," said Anne Gaylor, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's federal court victory ordering removal of a Ten Commandments monument from a public park in La Crosse, Wis., is being appealed to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The city council on Aug. 12 voted 15-2 to appeal the case, at a meeting crammed with religious pickets, singing gospel songs.
Mayor John Medinger vetoed the decision on Aug. 13, deeming the court order "constitutionally correct." He warned of the expense: "there is no free lunch or free attorneys either." Medinger called the vote "a step in the wrong direction."
He was hastily overridden by another 15-2 vote the following day. Voting both times against the appeal were Larry Lebiecki and Marilyn Wigdahl.
Thirty-four area attorneys and one judge had submitted a letter advising the city to drop the case, saying it has scant chance of success in the appeal.
"There hasn't been a lawyer who has read the decision that thinks it would succeed on appeal, and when is the last time lawyers ever agreed on anything?" asked signer Keith A. Belzer at a press conference.
Additionally, 36 religious and community leaders signed their own letter urging the common council not to appeal. Leading the signators were the Administration of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration; Bishop April Ulring Larson of the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, two priests with the Diocese of La Crosse, and the pastor of a First Congregational United Church of Christ.
"We not only have a legal victory in La Crosse," said Foundation president Anne Gaylor, "but a moral victory. We are very grateful not only to our 22 brave local plaintiffs, but to the mayor, and for the groundswell of support for the ruling and the separation of church and state by so many thoughtful and diverse residents."
A member of the La Crosse County Republican Party handed out brochures promoting an appeal, while the La Crosse Democratic Party officially supported removal.
The strong 41-page ruling by Federal Judge Barbara Crabb has dominated headlines and letters to the editor in the La Crosse Tribune since being handed down on July 14.
In July 2002, 22 local plaintiffs and the Foundation challenged city support of the tombstone-like Ten Commandments monument, donated in 1965 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. After the lawsuit was filed, the city sold a tiny bite of the small park to the Eagles, which merely fenced the monument.
Judge Crabb called the sale unconstitutional because its only purpose was to promote religion.
After the decision, Christ Episcopal Church on Main Street had offered to provide a permanent home to the monument. The minister also offered to invite the Foundation plaintiffs to participate in a formal procession moving the monument from the park to the church. Trinity Luthern Church also offered to take the monument.
The Foundation is contesting a motion by the American Center for Law and Justice, evangelist Pat Robertson's legal arm, asking to intervene in the ongoing lawsuit.
A few years ago I decided to read the bible from cover to cover. I'd like to claim intellectual curiosity, but in truth my primary motive was sheer annoyance. I had begun listening to Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio program and she kept flatly insisting that religious precepts were essential to morality. It had always seemed to me that "sacred" guidelines like the Ten Commandments fell into one of two categories. They were either purely religious but morally irrelevant, or morally useful but not intrinsically religious at all.
So I resolved to learn first-hand what the bible actually says. What I found will be no surprise to readers of Freethought Today. The Old Testament is crammed with gratuitous violence and moral nonsequiturs, often perpetrated or instigated by Jehovah himself. The New Testament has a much gentler tone overall, but a careful reading shows that Jesus is not quite the paragon of virtue legend holds him to be. For instance, he repeatedly advocates total allegiance to the Old Testament regime and all its injustices.
One small but telling incident stands out in my mind as epitomizing the confused view of right and wrong that permeates the bible. It occurs while King David is returning the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:6,7). The Ark has been taken from the home of Abinadab and placed on an ox-drawn cart which Abinadab's sons, Ahio and Uzzah, are responsible for guiding. When the party arrives at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen momentarily stumble and Uzzah instinctively reaches out to steady the cart. As his hand approaches the Ark, Jehovah instantly strikes him dead.
The reaction of many people to this would be, "So what? It was common knowledge that the Ark was dangerous and never to be touched, so Uzzah should have known better." To me the message is very different. Here is a chance for Jehovah to demonstrate some understanding in a one-on-one interaction with a faithful follower. After all, he is supposed to have designed and created every detail of the human brain, so he knows perfectly well that Uzzah's reaction was reflexive and aimed only at protecting the Ark. Yet Jehovah chooses cruelty rather than compassion.
Actions like the murder of Uzzah are frequently defended with the supreme authority argument. The gist of this rationalization is that Jehovah has a master plan and knows more than we could possibly comprehend about human destiny, so it is arrogant of us to question him in any way.
But a more thoughtful approach supports almost the opposite conclusion. If Jehovah is as wise as advertised, he is not less accountable for his behavior than ordinary mortals, but more so. Both the original no-touch rule and the wanton destruction of Uzzah (who only wanted to help) are characteristic of the kind of small-mindedness we ordinarily hold in contempt. I see no reason to make an exception for someone who, above all, should know better.
The terminally abusive treatment of Uzzah is just one of many instances enabling a perceptive reader to see that Jehovah's conduct falls far short of justifying the stream of uncritical praise constantly heaped on him. On a more general level, the sum of such failures damages his moral credibility beyond repair and adds to a much larger body of evidence which tends to reveal him, in the end, as nothing more than a rather unpleasant fictional character.