This is excerpted from Michael Newdow's acceptance speech as "Freethinker of the Year" before the 25th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Westin Horton Plaza Hotel, San Diego, on Nov. 22, 2002.
By Michael Newdow, M.D.
I want to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I've always been an atheist but was never part of any movement like this. It's a special honor. I'm going to mention later how Robert Tiernan and FFRF were somewhat integral and became part of this lawsuit. I'll start at the beginning, though.
I have two friends who are law professors in Chicago, Michelle and Larry. They're great people, and I like to visit them. But when you go to their house, they only have liquid soaps, and I just hate liquid soaps--you can't get clean with the stuff.
I thought as a gag I'd bring them soap, regular soap, so I bought about a hundred bars. I'm standing in line, and it turns out it comes to $36.96, which all of you will immediately realize can be paid for with a twenty, a ten, a five and a one, and a half-dollar, quarter, dime, two nickels and a penny.
As I'm standing in line, I'm looking at the twenty dollar bill, and it says "In God We Trust." What the heck is this doing here? It just had never hit me. I looked at the ten dollar bill. "In God We Trust." And the five and the one and all the change. I thought, "What is going on here? I don't trust in God. I'm an American."
By the time I get to Michelle and Larry's house I'm fuming. I said, "Did you see this? It says 'In God We Trust.' " And they said, "Well, it's been there for a while." I told them, "I'm getting it off."
Larry, who knows constitutional law, said, "I think the case has already been tried." It turns out he was correct. The Freedom From Religion Foundation had tried to challenge the phrase as the motto and on currency in 1994. It eventually went to the Tenth Circuit.
When I got home from that trip, I resolved to get "In God We Trust" off of the coins and currency. I got on the Internet, and typed in "In God We Trust."
The first thing that came up was a website from the Treasury Department, and it tells the story. In 1861, Rev. Watkinson wrote a letter to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, saying we need God on our coins.
Chase contacts a man by the name of James Pollitt, who was a founder of the NRA, which was not the National Rifle Association back then. It was the National Reform Association, which still exists today. Their goal is to have us declared a Christian nation. They came up with the idea of putting "In God We Trust" on a two-cent piece in 1864. Since that time it's progressed and it got on all the coins.
The second thing I found on the Internet was the Gaylor case. The Foundation attorney was named Bob Tiernan.
Somehow I found his phone number. I called him up and said, "Hi, my name is Mike Newdow and I'm going to get 'In God We Trust' off the currency," which was pretty arrogant, 'cause he had just lost in the Tenth Circuit.
I was down in Florida, which is the Eleventh Circuit, so I told Bob I would bring the case there, in a different circuit. Bob says, "More power to you, I give you my blessings." I told him I had one small problem I was wondering if he could help me with. He said, "Sure."
"I haven't the slightest idea how you file a lawsuit or do any of that stuff," I said. He was really amazingly generous, because he had spent a lot of time on the case, and he offered to send me his papers. I modeled my complaint on the Gaylor case.
As I thought about it, I realized that the case to get "under God" out of the pledge was stronger. The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, and for 62 years it was doing perfectly well with no religion. Then in 1954 Congress took two words, "under God," and stuck them in the middle of this pledge, where it didn't belong. That's clearly unconstitutional.
So I'm thinking, "I really wish I had taken this case instead of the 'In God We Trust' on the coins." It turns out there's a Rule Fifteen that says you can amend your complaint as long as the defendants haven't responded. The sixty days had gone by, and they asked for an extension. So I thought, "All right, I take this as a sign from 'God,' " and I amended my complaint to challenge "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. That's how I got to this case.
I was planning on enrolling my daughter in a school in Florida, but for reasons we needn't go into, she ended up out here in California. I had lost in the lower level. My case got to the court of appeals and I wrote that I was no longer in Florida, and didn't have standing anymore. They threw the case out. When you lose the case on standing it's not like losing; it's like you never brought the case.
So I got one run-through and then I got to bring it again in the Ninth Circuit. You know what happened since then. We had oral arguments on March 14, and then they came out on June 26 in my favor. [applause] Thank you.
It turns out that in Rule Fifteen there's also a section rule 15(b)3 which says if you amend your complaint you have to come up with a song. So. . . [brings out his guitar, song excerpted below]
"They had those Pledge-of-Allegiance-needs-some-old-religion blues"
Well the world was full of danger,
It got worse with every hour.
The people put the call in
to Dwight E. Eisenhower
They ran it through the Congress.
Each colleague gave a nod.
"Well damn the Constitution--
This country needs some god."
In the aftermath of the Pledge of Allegiance, I wasn't prepared for the media. I had got a computer program that arrived the day of my decision. I was really bummed because I'd planned on setting up my computer to say, "Hi, this is Mike Newdow. For compliments press 1, for questions 2, for insults 3, for media 4." I never got a chance to set it up.
The Ninth Circuit call came in that they had a decision, and they vaguely told me I'd won. Then I waited for the papers to get faxed. Before the fax comes through, the Associated Press calls. Then I started getting phone calls from the television stations. I'm thinking: this is dangerous. I'd never publicized my case in any way.
At first I refused to have a photograph taken. The television studio started calling, wanting to do an interview. I said, "Well, can you blur the face?" Really!
Then the doorbell rang, and like an idiot I answered. There's four cameras there. There goes the anonymity. (I can just let you know I've yet to see a story that doesn't have something that's significantly wrong.)
You recall the 99 Senators coming out and saying how much we need God in our country? The Ninth Circuit ruling said I couldn't name Congress in my lawsuit because they have sovereign immunity--unless they waive immunity. Well, when they came out to say how wrong this decision is, they said, "We're sending the congressional legal authority out to the Ninth Circuit to go argue this case." So now we have Congress in the case.
The chaplains came out the next day and specifically said this decision was wrong. I decided that I'd bring suit against the chaplains and try to get them taken out of our government.
I have all this fodder now because of the pledge case. Now I have standing, because they addressed me personally on this case. I also applied for a position of chaplain. It turns out it's the highest paid position in government. They work for a minute a day, they get $140,000. It's not a bad job.
It's clear that nobody who's an atheist would ever get this position. In Article VI of the Constitution it says that "no religious test shall ever be required for any office of public trust under the Constitution."
Robert C. Byrd, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, came out and called Judge Goodwin "stupid." He also said, "If his name ever comes before me in his promotion in the judiciary, he'll never get it because of this case." Pretty amazing stuff.
Then Byrd said, "I for one am not going to stand for this country being ruled by a bunch of atheists. If they don't like it, let 'em leave." Which is really good because it gave me another song, this one about Byrd, hold on. [gets guitar]
He is the man for the whole USA
As long as you're Protestant and you're not gay
"If they don't like it, let 'em leave"
Q: When does your CD come out?
Thank you for asking. I actually have a CD.
Q: What's happening in your case?
We don't know what's going to happen yet in the Ninth Circuit, it hasn't been finalized. If I win there, it's pretty certain it'll get appealed to the Supreme Court and I think they'd take it. If I lose, I'll ask the Supreme Court to hear it, but you have about a 1% chance of the Supreme Court ever hearing a case, so it's not particularly great odds. We'll hope anyway.
Q: What can we do to help you? Financial support is always appreciated, I'm doing this myself. I did go to law school, although I never took the bar, I never did any practice until this case came along. I like the idea that people can look and see what just one person can do in this country, how one person can change it. It's impressive. There's a website: www.restorethepledge.com and we keep names of volunteers.
Q: How has this affected you in the medical community?
It hasn't affected me much. I'm a part-time attendee at UCLA in the Department of Emergency Medicine.
Q: How has this affected your daughter?
My daughter's great. She wants to go swimming and play. Doesn't affect her too much at all. She's happy.