Court dismisses Pledge case
Atheist father cannot sue over use of 'Under God'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a California father could not challenge the Pledge of Allegiance, a decision that sidestepped the broader question of the separation of church and state.
The 8-0 ruling by the high court reversed a lower-court decision that teacher-led recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional.
The case had been brought by an atheist who did not want his third-grade daughter to have to listen to the phrase "under God" in the oath.
In a written statement, Attorney General John Ashcroft praised the ruling, saying it "ensures that school children in every corner of America can start their day by voluntarily reciting the Pledge of Allegiance."
Five justices -- led by Justice John Paul Stevens -- said Michael Newdow, the father, did not have the legal standing to bring the case. Newdow, who is involved in a custody dispute with the mother of their third-grade daughter, could not speak for the girl, the court ruled.
"When hard questions of domestic relations are sure to affect the outcome, a prudent course is for the federal court to stay its hand rather than reach out to resolve a weighty question of federal constitutional law," wrote Stevens.
In separate, concurring opinions, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas argued the court should have addressed the constitutional issue.
The justices said the pledge does not violate the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of religion by the government.
"To give the parent of such a child a sort of 'heckler's veto' over a patriotic ceremony willingly participated in by other students, simply because the Pledge of Allegiance contains the descriptive phrase 'under God,' is an unwarranted extension of the establishment clause, an extension which would have the unfortunate effect of prohibiting a commendable patriotic observance," Rehnquist wrote.
At Newdow's request, Justice Antonin Scalia recused himself after he had made remarks in a speech critical of the case.
The ruling -- delivered on Flag Day -- means that the full Pledge of Allegiance will continue to be recited in the nation's public schools.
Newdow, who has medical and legal degrees, argued his own case before the high-court justices in March. (March arguments before Supreme Court)
Newdow never married the mother of the child and the two are in a battle over his parental rights.
The mother, Sandra Banning, has said she has no problem with her daughter reciting the full pledge and argued that Newdow had no right to bring the case.
Newdow vowed Monday to continue his crusade, despite the high court's ruling.
"There's no problem in bringing the case right back," Newdow said in an interview with CNN's "Paula Zahn Now."
"I have numerous people who have expressed a willingness to be plaintiffs," Newdow said. (CNN Access)
Patriotic oath -- or prayer?
Constitutional scholars have long debated whether the Pledge serves as a prayer in addition to a patriotic oath.
Newdow sued the Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento County, California, which his daughter attended, claiming public recitation by students violated her religious liberty. While legal precedent makes reciting the pledge voluntary, Newdow said it becomes unconstitutional when students are forced to hear it. He argued that the teacher-led recitations carry the stamp of government approval.
Labeling the Pledge of Allegiance a "unifying patriotic exercise," district Superintendent Dave Gordon expressed delight with the ruling.
"We're grateful that our students and students throughout the country will continue to be able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the words 'under God,' as has been the law of our land for 50 years," he said.
Gordon expressed disappointment that the court did not rule on the constitutionality of the pledge.
Newdow had declared that his daughter would be singled out if she chose not to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and would be coerced to participate.
"Imagine you're a third-grader in a class of 30 kids. That's enormous pressure to put on a child," he said. "Government needs to stay out of the religion business altogether."
To give the parent of such a child a sort of 'heckler's veto' over a patriotic ceremony willingly participated in by other students & is an unwarranted extension of the establishment clause.
-- Chief Justice William Rehnquist
The Bush administration opposed the ban, and Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the justices the pledge is simply a "ceremonial, patriotic exercise."
In June 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals drew sharply divided public reaction when it banned the teacher-led pledge for the nearly 10 million schoolchildren in the nine Western states under its jurisdiction.
In striking down the pledge, the judges ruled "the coercive effect of the policy here is particularly pronounced in the school setting given the age and impressionability of schoolchildren."
But the ban was put on hold until the high court issued a final ruling.
On Monday's Supreme Court decision, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the court "ducked this constitutional issue" and that students "should not feel compelled by school officials to subscribe to a particular religious belief in order to show love of country," according to a report from The Associated Press.
On the other side, the American Center for Law and Justice said the ruling removes a cloud from the pledge.
"While the court did not address the merits of the case, it is clear that the Pledge of Allegiance and the words 'under God' can continue to be recited by students across America," said Jay Sekulow, the group's chief counsel, in an AP report.
The pledge was written in 1892 by Baptist minister and educator Francis Bellamy, who made no reference to religion in his version. It was originally worded: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It quickly became a part of public school programs.
In 1954, Congress added the words "under God," after pressure by the Knights of Columbus and other groups. Another modification was to change "my flag" to "the flag of the United States of America."
The case is Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, case no. 02-1624.
Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears contributed to this report.