Michael Newdow: An atheist with a cause

Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 14, 2010

“Why do we have the Fifth Amendment right to protect people from testifying against their own interests? Shouldn’t the law be able to compel us to tell the truth?”

Michelle Oberman, a friend and former Law School classmate of University Law School alum Michael Newdow, recalled Newdow asking these questions in class one day during a lesson on the Bill of Rights.

“He was known for asking questions that tended to derail class, although that was not his intention,” Oberman said.

This habit of questioning the status quo of existing governmental procedures and documents has earned Newdow a reputation as one of the leading activists in the country working to have the words “Under God” expunged from federal documents and declarations like the United States Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Newdow, who graduated from the University’s Law School in 1988, is best known for a lawsuit he filed, which claimed that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional for including the words “Under God.” The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, though Newdow was eventually defeated.

In addition, Newdow is also trying to get the words “In God We Trust” removed from U.S. currency and is working to eliminate the presidential inaugural prayer.

Mike’s mother Roz Newdow said she and her husband didn’t try to persuade their children to take up any specific beliefs. Instead all the members of the family, which she described as Jewish but secular, independently became atheists.

“We’re all atheists,” Roz said. “But it was all their decision.”

But Newdow, who was born in 1953 in New York, claims he was an atheist since he was in the womb.

“I was born an atheist, as we all were,” he said in an interview over the summer. “And I never changed.”

Julie Newdow, Newdow's younger sister, said the family never overtly discussed their religious beliefs among one another until her brother’s court cases started.

But Newdow’s work to reform governmental language as it pertains to religion doesn’t stem so much from his religious convictions as it does from his passion for law, said Oberman, now a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

Newdow’s fervor to preserve the foundations of the Bill of Rights has influenced his endeavor to reverse Americans’ standard to “profess and even embrace a God-centered rhetoric in the public sphere,” Oberman said.

“His research shows unequivocal proof of the founders' intention to make this country free from persecution on account of one's personal religious beliefs,” Oberman said.

Newdow developed his passion for the constitution during his time at the University’s Law School. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology from Brown University in 1974 and his medical degree from the University of California at Los Angeles Medical School in 1978, he decided several years later to pursue his law degree at Michigan.

In his early thirties when he started law school, Newdow was older than most students at the University. Employing his medical background, he worked as a locum tenens ER physician — a physician who substitutes for other physicians — at various hospitals in Michigan during his time as a law student.

While in Ann Arbor, Newdow also grew to have a close friendship with his professor, Peter Westen.

The two — who still keep in touch today — would meet during office hours to talk about class material, though their discussions often meandered beyond the course subject matter.

“He has maybe the most eager-to-learn mind than anyone I know, and it’s certainly one of his best qualities,” Weston said. “He always wants to learn.”

Julie said that, as a kid, Newdow would study the dictionary; simply open the heavy book and learn words he didn’t know. She said he’d also write songs about some of the words, choosing the most obscure vocabulary to fold into the next verse.

“He was always just in another stratosphere, another world,” Julie said. “Not only because he’s so brilliant, but he has this work ethic and at the same time is extremely humble.”

Julie said Newdow's pension for making changes to the system could be seen during his time working in hospitals while he was in law school. She said that from her understanding, he told many patients that the tests doctors prescribed for them weren’t necessary, but instead were very costly.

“He would try to change the system that probably should be changed,” she said “He’d go against bureaucracy. He can’t keep his mouth quiet if he believes in something.”

Though Newdow planned to combine his expertise in both law and health after law school, by going into health law, he ended up taking a different path.

Oberman said Newdow’s decision to carry out his convictions regarding religion in government began when he was teaching his daughter math at a store one day a few years ago.

“While standing in line teaching (his daughter) math sums…he happened to notice the words, ‘In God We Trust’ on the coin,” Oberman said. “So it began.”

When he saw this phrase on the coin, Newdow said he thought, “This can’t be right. I’m getting this off.”

Lawrence Marshall, Oberman’s husband and director of the Mills Legal Clinic in Stanford Law School, said Newdow’s work on the Pledge of Allegiance case that went to the Supreme Court was widely respected in the law community.

“It was just a tour de force,” Marshall said. “Several very prominent legislators came up to me afterward with their jaws on the floor. They were just so awed by how marvelous a job (Newdow) did at the relevant issue and most importantly maintaining a certain tone and decorum.”

Marshall added that Newdow’s work in the courtroom wasn’t surprising given his personality.

“He’s among the most passionate I know,” Marshall said. “He sees the world as it ought to be and refuses to accept it to be anything else. He’s incapable of accepting the idea of institutions or people to be less than the ideals that they promote and claim to be.”

Marshall said even though Newdow ultimately didn’t win the case, it wasn’t because his logic was flawed, but rather because it explicitly challenged the traditional foundations of the federal government.

“It’s very difficult for a court to look at the law at this field and say, ‘Yes it’s fine to tell our school children that our nation is under God and that the children who don’t believe in God are inferior,’” Marshall said. “It seems to me that this is the implicit message kids are being given every morning."

Marshall continued, “It’s real clear. But based on the law and the principles of the first amendment, the problems are at the level of political realities that courts have to deal with. This is what caused the struggle.”

Oberman said she thinks the reason there is so much controversy surrounding Newdow’s efforts is because of a biased opinion against atheists’ beliefs in the United States.

“He is seen as being hostile to God and to those who believe in a deity,” she said. “On the contrary, his position is simply that God-talk doesn’t belong in the public sphere.”

One of the presiding judges on the case at the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals, Carlos Bea disagreed with Newdow, saying that governmental references to God have, in the past, been accepted in certain situations.

"Not every mention of God or religion by our government or at the government's direction is a violation of the Establishment Clause," wrote Bea.

Newdow said he believes those who disagree with him don’t have a complete understanding of the issue. He said he has asked people if they agree that the government should show equal respect to everyone regardless of their different backgrounds, particularly race. After they all answered "of course," Newdow continued to explain that this principle should extend to religion, and that the government shouldn’t impose one belief system over another through oaths that children in public schools have to recite each morning.

Marshall said Newdow’s work toward this reformation is “emblematic of Newdow’s passion and principle.”

“As he repeatedly said, the idea that you would have the nation being necessarily theistic is very problematic,” Marshall said. “On the other hand, there is also an understanding that there are limits on how far the courts are likely to go even if a matter of logic and principles (is) correct.”

Now residing in California, Newdow still does locum ER work, and during his free time, he said he enjoys playing the guitar and songwriting.

Newdow said he’s already released three CDs featuring lyrics representing his beliefs that religion shouldn’t be involved in the government.

One song called “Be Fair,” from his WASP Side Story album demonstrates his opinion regarding the phrase “In God we trust.”

“In God some don’t trust,” the song states. “No, in God some don’t trust/ If you see Him, then good for you/ But for others, He’s just not true/ show care, let’s share. Be fair.”

Both Newdow's sister and mother said they have been unbelievably proud of Newdow in his endeavors. Julie said she went to the Supreme Court to watch him argue his case and said he was incredible.

“He (is) always challenging the universe, seeing how well he can do something on his own,” Julie said. “He thinks on his own, and accomplishes a lot, not necessarily following all the rules.”