With an acoustic guitar and harmonica, constitutional activist Michael Newdow stood before a crowd of students in Hutchins Hall yesterday afternoon and crooned his song “Pledge of Allegiance Blues.”
Newdow, however, was there not only to entertain, but to talk about his ongoing struggle to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Newdow, a Law School alum, lectured yesterday about his efforts to uphold the establishment clause, which forbids Congress from making a law that establishes a national religion.
“I don’t consider myself an atheist activist, I consider myself an Establishment Clause activist,” Newdow said.
Last year, in the case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, Newdow represented himself at the U.S. Supreme Court, and challenged the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, arguing that it was religious indoctrination of his 10-year-old daughter.
Newdow’s case was rejected in an 8-0 decision, on the grounds that he lacked standing, or the right to file suit, because he was not the legal guardian of his daughter.
Three justices, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor and William Rehnquist, opined that the phrase has historical significance to the nation and is therefore not unconstitutional.
“Under God” was added to the pledge on Flag Day in 1954 by an act of Congress.
“The pledge is a declaration of belief in allegiance and loyalty to the United States flag and the Republic that it represents. The phrase ‘under God’ is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion,” Rehnquist wrote in the opinion.
Five justices, John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer rejected the case on standing while Justice Antonin Scalia did not hear the case because he publicly denounced the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision, which ruled in favor of Newdow, before the case came to the Supreme Court.
Because the majority of the justices did not rule on the constitutionality of the phrase ‘under God,’ the same case can be brought up again.
“I imagine the court was relieved to find a way to dismiss this case on standing, but they may not be able to avoid the question much longer,” Law School prof. Chris Whitman said.
Newdow expressed his intent to continue fighting the phrase. “I plan on continuing the case in every circuit in the nation,” Newdow said.
Most recently, Newdow challenged the recital of a prayer at the presidential inauguration. He compared the inaugural prayer to prayers before high school football games and at commencement ceremonies, which have been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. His request for an injunction to stop the prayer was rejected, but he said the case is still alive.
Newdow said the Constitution and the intents of the founding fathers’ bolster his case.
“I have the Constitution on my side. When it was written, it was clear the founding fathers wanted the separation of church and state,” he said.
He praised the Constitution, calling it “a phenomenal document.”
“To think our country is based on those 4,500 words is pretty amazing,” Newdow said.
The audience was generally supportive of Newdow’s aims.
“What he’s doing is really important, and his speech was enlightening,” law student Trish Rich said.
She said the argument that tradition or ceremony can defend religious language in state-sponsored activities is invalid.
“This causes non-Christians to be demonized,” she added.
Some students, however, voiced mild concern about Newdow’s activism.
“I think he is before his time. I agree that state and religion should be separate, but he may have polarized too many people,” LSA sophomore Peter Pienkowski said.
Newdow will speak again today at noon about the American family law system in Room 218 of Hutchins Hall.