A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the law requiring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional and said he was ready to issue an injunction to three California school districts to halt the daily reciting of the pledge.
Terming the case "a cause celebre in the ongoing struggle as to the role of religion in the civil life of this nation," U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that the pledge's reference to "one nation under God" violates children's right to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God."
Michael A. Newdow, the atheist resident of Sacramento whose previous case against the pledge's words "under God" was rejected last year by the Supreme Court on procedural grounds, said he will ask the judge to issue a restraining order halting the pledge at the Elk Grove Unified, Rio Linda and Elverta Joint Elementary school districts in Sacramento County. A lawyer for the districts told the Associated Press he was not prepared to comment on the case.
Newdow, speaking from his cell phone in El Paso, Tex., said he was pleased by the verdict but expects a tough legal fight ahead. "It'll be emotional when it's ruled that all Americans should be treated equally," he said. "This is a start towards that, but we still have a ways to go." He said he wants the Pledge of Allegiance restored to its original text, approved by Congress in 1942, with no mention of God.
Jared Leland, a lawyer for the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which fought the case, said he had expected the verdict but that his group, which represented students and parents of students in the case, will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. In the case, Leland also represented the Knights of Columbus, which started using the revised pledge in 1951 as the Cold War heated up. The Knights lobbied Congress and the Eisenhower administration to officially change the pledge in 1954.
"The pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction in our country," Leland said. "Mike Newdow is on a train whose destination is designed to hide and undermine the role of religion in public life. We want to restore religion to the public square."
In his ruling, which he acknowledged will "satisfy no one involved" in the debate about the role of religion in public life, Karlton said he was bound by precedent from the appeals court, which in 2002 ruled in favor of Newdow that the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools.
Last year, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, saying that Newdow lacked standing because he did not have custody of his elementary school daughter, on whose behalf he sued.
Newdow then filed a similar suit on behalf of three unnamed parents and their children. Karlton, ruling in Sacramento, said those families have the right to sue and, arguing that he was bowing to the 9th Circuit court's initial ruling on the pledge, ruled in their favor.
Wednesday's ruling increases the chance that the case could return to the Supreme Court because the 9th Circuit's ruling on Newdow's suit clashes with an opinion, issued in August, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. That court upheld a Virginia law requiring public schools to lead daily Pledge of Allegiance recitation, saying the pledge is a patriotic exercise, not a religious affirmation similar to a prayer.
Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report.