January 15, 2009
Judge Rejects Atheist Challenge to Inaugural Prayer
A U.S. District judge today denied a California atheist's request to halt references to God at President-elect Obama's swearing-in on Jan. 20.
"I think it's highly questionable that I have such authority," said Judge Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after a two-hour hearing today.
Walton did not dismiss the case, but denied Michael Newdow's request for a preliminary injunction, saying the "ceremonial speech" at the presidential inauguration is "in substance" no different from legislative prayers that the Supreme Court has permitted.
Newdow, an emergency room physician, made his third attempt to have religious references at presidential inaugurations declared unconstitutional. This time, he was joined by 11 atheist and humanist organizations who felt the words "so help me God" in the oath, and references to God in the invocation and benediction, discriminated against them as nonbelievers.
"This is a practice subversive to the principle of equality," argued Newdow. "The harm is it turns people into second-class citizens and you're not allowed to do that."
Walton said he had difficulty understanding how Newdow and other plaintiffs could say they were harmed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administering the oath with the words "so help me God" while supporting Obama's personal free exercise to say the same phrase.
"I can tell the chief justice what he can do?" Walton asked Newdow.
"The chief justice is not above the law," responded Newdow, who represented himself and the other plaintiffs.
Newdow also argued that the plaintiffs, including a minor, would feel forced to hear prayers they didn't condone if they watched the inauguration.
"I don't think there is a credible claim of coercion, whether it's a child or an adult," argued Deputy Assistant Attorney General John C. O'Quinn.
In addition to Roberts, Newdow named inaugural planners in the suit, as well as California megachurch pastor Rick Warren and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who will deliver the invocation and benediction, respectively.
After the hearing, Newdow said he would appeal the ruling but added, "I think it's going to be futile."
Newdow, who also has tried to remove the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, was unsuccessful in his efforts to fight inaugural prayers in 2001 and 2005.
Bob Ritter, co-counsel for the defendants, criticized Walton's ruling.
"This case is not about atheists merely 'feeling offended.' There is real harm," he said in a statement. "... All Americans will be injured on Jan. 20 by (dignitaries) ... violating the principle of separation of church and state, which is the basis for our religious liberty."