Atheist parent aims for secular pledge

California atheist Michael Newdow has a date with the Supreme Court, which will hear his case against the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance early next year. And thanks to a ruling by the court Monday, he will get to represent himself.

In the meantime, he is expected once a week at co-parenting class.

A Sacramento judge wants Newdow to get along with his ex-girlfriend, who has primary custody of their 9-year-old daughter — whose exposure to mandatory classroom recitations of the pledge prompted Newdow’s lawsuit. The judge has said that Newdow’s increased access to his child depends on it.

The custody dispute, though little-explored, is crucial to the pledge case: Newdow claimed standing to challenge "under God" based on his status as a parent of a schoolchild. And it offers a window on the personality driving the pledge case, which is only one of four court battles that Newdow is currently waging.

To supporters, Newdow is living proof that, with enough determination, you can fight City Hall.

To his detractors, however, Newdow, 50, is an out-of-control epitome of the Me Generation.

Newdow’s claim of parental standing to challenge "under God" has been questioned by his ex-girlfriend, Sandra Banning, and others, and the Supreme Court has decided to consider it along with the larger question of whether the phrase violates the constitutional ban on state-sponsored religion. If the court finds that Newdow lacks standing, it can throw out the case without ruling on the pledge.

So for all his professional titles, Newdow’s case may hinge on what the court makes of his claim to a much humbler appellation: Daddy.

Fatherhood is not a role Newdow initially relished. He has asserted in court that the child was conceived when Banning forced him to have sex during a trip to Yosemite National Park.

"I knew she was well taken care of by the mother, so I went out and made money," Newdow said.

Newdow provided houses for Banning and their daughter, first in Winston-Salem, N.C., and later in Sacramento, though in 1999 he evicted them on 30 days’ notice from the Sacramento house after he and Banning quarreled.

At that point, Newdow suggested to Banning that their daughter, then 5, live with her and attend kindergarten in Sacramento for half of each month, and live with him and attend kindergarten in Florida for the other half.

"I do believe he loves his daughter, as much as Michael Newdow can love anyone," Banning said. "And she loves him. But she’s a great vehicle for him to accomplish his other things."

Newdow’s main argument in the case is that the entire family law system is wrongly premised on "the best interests of the child," when what should really count is what he says is the parents’ constitutional right to equal time.

But this argument has made little headway. "The concern in this court is not whether your life is ruined or not," Mize told him. "I’m concerned about the child’s future." But Newdow says he plans to resume this fight after the pledge case.

The pledge lawsuit, dismissed in Florida, was reborn in March 2000, after Banning enrolled her daughter in a public school in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove. Filing in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Newdow named himself and his daughter as plaintiffs.

The district judge dismissed the case in two paragraphs. Newdow appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which also initially treated his case as routine.

But Newdow exercised his right to object to that assignment, and was eventually granted permission to argue the case himself before a three-judge panel. To the astonishment of virtually the entire country, the panel ruled 2 to 1 in his favor in June 2002.

On Sept. 25, 2002, Mize reinforced Banning’s claim, ordering Newdow not to involve his daughter in the lawsuit again without Banning’s consent. Though he had previously permitted the girl to attend Newdow’s oral argument before the 9th Circuit, Mize now cited the risk to the girl’s "health and safety" from the public backlash against her father.

That Dec. 4, the 9th Circuit ruled against Banning, interpreting California law to give even noncustodial parents a legally significant interest in their children’s upbringing.

The Pledge of Allegiance conveys the message to Newdow’s daughter that "her father’s beliefs are those of an outsider, and necessarily inferior to what she is exposed to in the classroom," the 9th Circuit ruled. Thus, Newdow has a claim whether his daughter is named in the case or not.

Banning, who has probably spent more time in court with Newdow than anyone else, is not sure how he will fare with the justices.

"He can be very easily sidetracked," she said. "They could probably have a good time with him if they want to. But I don’t know, he might just surprise us. He’s got it this far."

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Title: Atheist parent aims for secular pledge | Author: Charles Lane | Section: News | Published Date: 2003-12-03 | Internal ID: 3659