***Update***: The lawsuit in question has undergone some revisions (including new plaintiffs). A few changes have been made since my original posting.
Atheist Michael Newdow (of “Under God” fame) and several other atheists are suing government officials over the injection of religion into the presidential Inauguration.
The lawsuit is being filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Who is suing? Anyone and everyone, it seems.
DAN BARKER AND
ANNE, PHILIP AND JAY RICHARDSON;
ANNA MAE ANDREWS;
THE AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
THE FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION
OF ATHEISTS & FREETHINKERS
ATHEISTS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
ATHEIST ALLIANCE INTERNATIONAL
NEW ORLEANS SECULAR HUMANIST ASSN
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
SECULAR STUDENT UNION
ATHEISTS OF FLORIDA
Why “unnamed children”? Because, according to Newdow, the public prayers amount to the “coercive imposition of religious dogma specifically denounced by the Supreme Court” in so many other similar court cases.
Who is being sued?
HON. JOHN ROBERTS, JR., CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE U.S. SUPREME COURT;
PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURAL COMMITTEE (“PIC”);
EMMETT BELIVEAU, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PIC;
JOINT CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE ON INAUGURAL CEREMONIES (“JCCIC”);
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN, CHAIRPERSON, JCCIC;
ARMED FORCES INAUGURAL COMMITTEE (“AFIC”);
MAJOR GENERAL RICHARD J. ROWE JR., CHAIRPERSON, AFIC;
REV. RICK WARREN;
REV. JOE LOWERY;
What do the plaintiffs want?
They want to stop “so help me God” from being said during this inauguration and all future ones. Same with the prayers — both the invocation and benediction.
They don’t want extra money, but they do want to “recover costs, expert witness fees, attorney fees,” etc.
I do find it humorous that this section of the lawsuit is called “PRAYER FOR RELIEF.”
Why all the suing?
A couple key reasons:
- The addition of “so help me God” to the presidential oath of office (said by Chief Justice John Roberts) violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.
- The government-sponsored use of any clergy at all during the inauguration violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment
It’s a lawsuit against using religion at all in a presidential inauguration.
Should Newdow win? Yes. He’s correct on both these counts. There’s no reason Barack Obama should be swearing an oath to God when he takes office. (If he chooses to do so personally, that’s his decision, but it shouldn’t be part of the official ceremony.) There’s also no reason we should have prayers — in this case, Christian ones — at the inauguration.
Will Newdow win? Not likely. He’s tried this before and failed.
… the Court denies Newdow’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would enjoin the President and others from permitting clergy-led prayer at the 2005 Inauguration. Given the significant doubt that his action can proceed in the face of substantial questions relating to issue preclusion and standing, and the absence of a clearly established violation of the Establishment Clause, the Court concludes that Newdow has not satisfied the threshold requirement for extraordinary preliminary relief — a convincing showing of a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. Moreover, the balance of harms here, and particularly the public interest, does not weigh strongly in favor of the injunctive relief Newdow requests, which would require the unprecedented step of an injunction against the President.
Newdow has thus not met his burden of establishing that the extraordinary remedy of preliminary injunctive relief is warranted under the present circumstances. The motion for a preliminary injunction is therefore denied…
Is there anything different now from four years ago? Not that I can see.
It’s perhaps a symbolic lawsuit more than anything else. Newdow would disagree with that, though. He doesn’t file any lawsuit unless he thinks he has a chance at winning.
He does raise a few important points in the lawsuit that should be noted.
One is that, much like the injection of God on our money and into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, we didn’t always have prayers in the Inauguration ceremony.
That only began in 1937 (PDF) with Franklin Roosevelt.
Another is that the phrase “so help me God” isn’t a historic precedent, either. Newdow writes that the first verifiable use of that phrase took place in “1881, ninety-two years after George Washington’s initial ceremony” — when “Chester A. Arthur took the oath upon hearing of President James Garfield’s death.”
After that, it was used sporadically until 1933 (again, with Roosevelt). Newdow adds that the phrase was not used in 1929 at Herbert Hoover’s inauguration.
There’s a kick in the head for anyone who believes we were founded as a Christian nation.
Just as with the Pledge Case, Newdow has the facts on his side. But I’m not optimistic about the lawsuit achieving any results.
Will it hurt us in the long run, though? I doubt it.
There is an upside to all this: the lawsuit can help raise consciousness about these issues. Presidential inaugurations used to be solely about our country — not about praying to a specific God.
It would be nice to see a president and government respecting that secular tradition.
Update: There are several interesting posts on the inclusion of the phrase “So Help Me God” at American Creation.
(Thanks to Eliza for the link!)