Let’s hear it for tenacious Mike Newdow

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Statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor
Co-President, Freedom From Religion Foundation

The Religious Right, which never gives up in its quest to unite church and state, has met its equal in tenacity with state/church watchdog Michael Newdow.

I received a short email from Mike last week, informing me that a federal judge has slapped down his and our latest challenge of “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency. Mike cheerfully assured me he would be appealing shortly on behalf of FFRF, his mother, Roslyn Newdow, a numismatist (coin collector) and 17 other plaintiffs, including a teacher, parents and their minor children.

Mike, an emergency room doctor who moonlights as a constitutional attorney, catapulted into state/church separation fame after winning a beautiful ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2002 declaring “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional in public schools. The memorable words of Circuit Judge Alfred T. Goodwin are worth repeating:

“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.’ ” Goodwin noted that addition of “under God” in the pledge forces schoolchildren to swear allegiance to “monotheism,” impermissibly taking a position on the “existence and identity of God.”

Newdow’s surprise win received international coverage, inspired a cadre of hypocritical members of Congress to scream out “under God” on the steps of the Capitol, and, most importantly, reminded an increasingly amnesiac nation that the original Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892, was secular.

Not until 1954 was “God” was inserted by Congress, thereby ironically dividing “one nation, indivisible” with religion. The historic ruling, which was binding in about nine western states, unfortunately was overturned on a standing technicality by the U.S. Supreme Court, eager to rid itself of this hot potato.

Mike first contacted FFRF because we had sued over “In God We Trust,” another Johnny-come-lately motto first adopted in 1956 (and required by Congress to appear on all currency in 1955 — showing up on paper currency in 1957). Our case in Colorado court, ably argued by attorney Robert R. Tiernan, was thrown out.

Mike credited FFRF’s suit with first giving him the idea to challenge “under God” in the pledge. We’ve been watching his cases or working with him ever since. Of all the symbolic violations FFRF receives complaints over by its membership, “In God We Trust” tops the list, closely followed by “under God” in the pledge.

The current suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Feb. 1. The complaint alleged that the religious verbiage is proselytizing, discriminatory and an establishment of monotheism in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Newdow quoted representatives who voted for the addition as seeking to use the money to proselytize around the world. Rep. Herman Eberharter of Pennsylvania said: "[T]he American dollar travels all over the world, into every country of the world, and frequently gets behind the Iron Curtain, and if it carries this message in that way I think it would be very good. I think that is one of the most compelling reasons why we should put it on our currency.  . . .  The principles laid down by God and the teachings of our way of life should be kept alive in the hearts and minds of our friends enslaved behind the Iron Curtain."

Our lawsuit also pointed out that "In God We Trust" is discriminatory, necessarily excluding atheists and others who don't believe in one god or a god. Newdow noted the plaintiffs are “forced to proselytize — by an Act of Congress — for a deity they don’t believe in whenever they handle money.” You are not truly educated until you’ve read Michael’s legal complaint.

The 19-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Harold Baer Jr. said that the placement of the phrase doesn’t constitute a “substantial burden” on atheists. I feel sure if it read “In Allah We Trust,” the judge might have found this a tad irksome for Christian believers.

After the decision came down, a woman with a brash voice called our office to chide FFRF for being part of the lawsuit. Contrary to the judge’s denial of religious endorsement, she categorically stated that the motto proves that America is a Christian nation. “Aren’t you afraid that by denying Jesus Christ, you’ll go to hell?” she asked me. I couldn’t resist asking her, “Aren’t you afraid that by denying Zeus, you’ll end up in Hades?” (She hung up.)

Mike’s work has inspired other activism and litigation, notably a case before the Massachusetts Supreme Court filed by the American Humanist Association challenging “under God” in the pledge, citing lack of equal protection. While there are critics of lawsuits challenging entrenched state/church violations, it should be noted that we secularists have nothing to lose over this matter.

For 59 years, schoolchildren have been miseducated by a pledge that insultingly aligns patriotism with piety and inserts a deity into a government that is predicated on our godless Constitution.

The godly motto and pledge have created a misperception that the secular United States is indeed “One Nation Under God.” We’ve already hit rock bottom, legally speaking. Our litigation fights back and educates and, after all, is correctly based on the Constitution.

We’re grateful for the indefatigable, pro bono work of Mike Newdow to restore secularism to our government mottoes and the pledge. See you in the appeals court!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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