U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that the pledge’s reference to one nation “under God” violates school children’s right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.” The judge has granted legal standing to two families represented by an atheist who lost his previous battle before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Karlton said he was bound by precedent of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2002 ruled in favor of Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow that the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools.
“Imagine every morning if the teachers had the children stand up, place their hands over their hearts, and say, ‘We are one nation that denies God exists,”‘ Newdow said in an interview with AP Radio after the ruling.
“I think that everybody would not be sitting here saying, ‘Oh, what harm is that.’ They’d be furious. And that’s exactly what goes on against atheists. And it shouldn’t.”
The Supreme Court dismissed the case in 2004, saying Newdow lacked standing because he did not have custody of his elementary school daughter he sued on behalf of.
Karlton said he would sign a restraining order preventing the recitation of the pledge at the Elk Grove Unified, Rio Linda and Elverta Joint Elementary school districts in Sacramento County, where the plaintiffs’ children attend.
Steven Ladd, superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District, said the district’s school board has long supported allowing students to recite the pledge.
Andrew Napolitano, a senior judicial analyst for FOX News, said the ruling will not directly effect the rest of the nation, only Sacramento.
“There are federal judges who have ruled elsewhere in the U.S. the exact opposite of the way this federal judge has,” Napolitano said, but “this case only affects the area of California in which he [the judge] sits.”
He added that he expects appeals from the school districts, which then will make their way to the Supreme Court.
The Becket Fund, a religious rights group that is a party to the case, said it would immediately appeal the case to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If the court does not change its precedent, the group would go to the Supreme Court.
The decisions by Karlton and the 9th Circuit conflict with an August opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. That court upheld a Virginia law requiring public schools lead daily Pledge of Allegiance recitation, which is similar to the requirement in California.
A three-judge panel of that circuit ruled that the pledge is a patriotic exercise, not a religious affirmation similar to a prayer.
Karlton, appointed to the Sacramento bench in 1979 by President Carter, wrote that the case concerned “the ongoing struggle as to the role of religion in the civil life of this nation” and added that his opinion “will satisfy no one involved in that debate.”
Karlton dismissed claims that the 1954 Congressional legislation inserting the words “under God” was unconstitutional. If his ruling stands, he reasoned that the school children and their parents in the case would not be harmed by the phrase because they would no longer have to recite it at school.
The case was later appealed to the Ninth Circuit under Newdow v. Carey and was reversed.
The case is Newdow v. Congress, 05-17. Read the judge’s opinion by clicking here (pdf provided by FindLaw).
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