Atheists Suing Over Inauguration Will Get Their Day in Court

It looks like Michael Newdow‘s lawsuit — against prayer being used in the presidential inauguration — will be heard in federal court.

… the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a hearing in Newdow v. Roberts. The hearing is scheduled for January 15, 2009.

“If we prevail at the January 15 hearing, this inauguration will be secular, as it should be under the Constitution,” said Bob Ritter, staff attorney for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the American Humanist Association and co-counsel in the case.

In his order granting the hearing, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton gave the defendants until 5 p.m., January 7, 2009, to file any opposition to the plaintiffs’ motion. The hearing will take place January 15, 2009, at 2 p.m. in Courtroom 16 of the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse, 333 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

“From the very start, we were confident in the legal merits of this case,” declared Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “This is foundational litigation aimed at defending central principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.”

Wow. How’s that for speed?

What do you think: Do you think there’s any chance we’ll be seeing a secular ceremony?

  • http://localhost/ Troll

    Secular Ceremony? No, not gonna happen.

  • http://www.aweigh.com Kayaker

    No. Even if the District Court agrees, it will be bumped up to the Supreme Court.

    I wonder if this is a battle that should be deferred to a later inauguration. I fear that we are winning battles while hardening the opponents.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    There’s a chance, but probably a slim one. I think this is one of those wait-and-see type things.

    Kayaker:

    I wonder if this is a battle that should be deferred to a later inauguration. I fear that we are winning battles while hardening the opponents.

    The trouble with that argument is that it can be reapplied to any later challenge to the inauguration. And how is this hardening the opponents? It’s not as if the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are giving them new examples of atheists behaving badly that they can use as ammunition.

  • http://globalizati.wordpress.com globalizati

    Not a chance, at least this time. Any sort of stay on religious expression in the ceremony would be negated by a higher court ruling and put in place next time at the earliest. I think it’s conceivable that the prayer would be overturned, but I’m guessing the President will always get to add “so help me God” if s/he wants. Big whoop.

  • http://humanistdad.blogspot.com HumanistDad

    Unlikely, but I think it would be even more fun if Obama chose, oh, I don’t know, a Muslim inauguration!!

  • http://www.otmatheist.com hoverFrog

    Do you think there’s any chance we’ll be seeing a secular ceremony?

    Let me just put these snowballs in the oven and think about it….

    No, even if he wins it will be left to the President Elect to decide the format of the ceremony and he would be a fool not to voluntarily choose a religious theme. I’m convinced that he isn’t a fool. Can you imagine the negative political fallout if he didn’t use God’s name when he had the option to?

  • http://www.slightlysouthofsane.com Tony Miller

    I don’t think we’ll have a secular ceremony this time.

    It’s still good to see a court willing to hear the case.

  • http://foreverinhell.blogspot.com Personal Failure

    i think we will see a black, handicapped, lesbian woman as president before we see an atheist president.

  • http://frivology.blogspot.com Stacy

    I don’t think Newdow will win, but I do think it’s terribly important for this suit to be brought up every time there is an inauguration until someone gets the point.

    Can you imagine the negative political fallout if he didn’t use God’s name when he had the option to?

    I very much disagree that any president needs to cater to religion and that not doing so would be “bad” in some amorphous way.

  • Ben

    Do you think there’s any chance we’ll be seeing a secular ceremony?

    I don’t want to get my hopes up. There has to be a chance, though, right?

  • Ben

    I’m guessing the President will always get to add “so help me God” if s/he wants.

    That’s already granted as unproblematic in the lawsuit. At issue is whether the Supreme Court justice, in administering the oath, should say the words. It was quite the ‘wtf’ moment watching Nancy Pelosi swear in the new Congressional reps to support and defend the Constitution while adding the phrase that isn’t in the Constitution.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    I fear that we are winning battles while hardening the opponents.

    I fear when I read objections like this that some “atheists” are actually more afraid of success than failure. They’re more worried about “offending” the majority than about principle. They’re so used to being the hated minority that they can’t imagine things being any other way.

    Of course we are hardening the opponents! That’s what happens when you change society. There will always be die-hards, but you ignore them. Like with women’s suffrage, gay rights, or racial equality. Who knows, if defenders of minority rights keep fighting long enough, they might actually get one of their own in the White House. Oh, right, that’s what happened.

    How many whiners and “traditionalists” had to be ignored, offended, marginalized and just plain outclassed between 1964 (Civil Rights Act) and 2009 to put Barack Obama in the White House??

    *irony O ye of little faith. */irony

  • Ann

    There’s a very slim chance. But I highly doubt it.

  • http://www.anatheist.net James

    I won’t hold my breath. The inauguration is so soon and litigation tends to get drawn out once appeals are involved.

  • http://www.aweigh.com Kayaker

    …that some “atheists” are actually more afraid of success than failure. They’re more worried about “offending” the majority than about principle.

    I’m neither worried about offending nor am I known for bending my principles.

    However, there are hundreds if not thousands of swearing-in ceremonies this month. Does it make sense to shoot for the gold in front of millions or would it be just as principled to establish legal precedents at state or local levels?

    Many individuals today have knee-jerk, bumper-sticker reactions to issues. The more frequently that we headline our atheism, the more likely we evoke the knee-jerk.

    The 60′s Civil Rights movement won the big battles four decades ago, but it took 40 more years of small wins to place Obama in the White house.

    I’m suggesting there may be another method.

  • GullWatcher

    @Kayaker

    I fear that we are winning battles while hardening the opponents.

    Ever hear of the Overton window? It’s about getting people used to our existence and the fact that we aren’t going away. It’s not only acceptable to risk offending people, it’s necessary for change to happen.

  • http://blocraison.blogspot.com Paul Fidalgo

    I think he will not win, but I think if he does, we need to be ready for the backlash against atheism in general. That’s okay, to have a backlash, but we should be thinking now about how to talk about it, and (again) who should be doing the talking.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    The Overton window is a useful idea, as is the concept of the dialectic. We have to hold our position firmly and strongly. It is for others to oppose us, and the center will slowly move. We might not make it this time. But the mere fact that a challenge is being heard will move the secularization of such ceremonies just a little closer to mainstream acceptance.

    @Kayaker, you still haven’t made an argument as to why Newdow shouldn’t be taking a stand. Other than the fear of offending, how could it hurt? In terms of the dialectic, how could it not help?

  • http://rationallyright.com James D. Fich

    We as atheists do our cause no good by seeming like victims. My children are not going to end up as mindless robots worshiping an imaginary god because because their money mentions it. They are not going to become missionaries because the big “O” says “so help me God” at the end of his oath. We are not this weak and frail.

    Newdow and company actually make it harder for us to win hearts and minds because they attack religion out of anger and offer nothing in its place but more anger. These silly lawsuits do nothing but attack American culture. Sure, there is a lot about American culture that needs to be changed, but the courtroom is not where we need to have this battle. There are no Jim Crow laws keeping us from enjoying equal opportunity because of our atheism.

    If we want to have a secular country, let’s start by showing the theists that secularism isn’t negative; that a naturalistic world view isn’t just about rejecting a mystical one.

    And for crying out loud, let’s act like we have some spine. We can’t seem to be afraid of religion or our government. Of course, we have to stand up and fight against obvious and insidious mingling of the state and religion (i.e. prayer in school and the teaching of intelligent design in science class). And we need to stand up and say the state has no authority to decide which two people want to marry and what they do in their homes. But to worry about and go to court over four words the President says maybe twice in his life at the expense of making a case *for* a secular world view seems like too high a price to pay.

  • http://www.abandonallfear.co.uk Alex Fear

    Anyone would think the words were “So help me rule over the masses with an iron fist” the way you make such a big deal over it.

    The PE is just asking God in accordance with his faith to help him lead responsibly.

    If an atheist gets into the White House I’m sure that an atheist could say something like “So I’ll help myself” or “So help me everyone” or “I don’t need help”.

    Wouldn’t it help your cause not to rely on lawsuits to get your way but instead think up an alternative for the PE to say. Either way, you’re not going to prevent a true believer from saying it anyway.. but it’s more helpful to present an alternative than to throw all your toys out of the pram.

  • GullWatcher

    @Alex Fear

    Perhaps you should get your facts straight. This isn’t about what Obama says, it’s about what the guy swearing him in says. It’s about putting the oath of office back to its *original* form. And it’s not about atheism, it’s about separation of church and state. And a lawsuit is completely appropriate, not to “get our way” but to see that the right thing is done.

    If anyone is whining here, it’s you, and you’re not even whining about the right thing because you didn’t bother to check it out first.

    @ James D. Fich

    We can’t seem to be afraid of religion or our government

    I’m not afraid of either religion or government, I’m afraid of religion IN our government, and that is a very legitimate fear.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    GullWatcher, BlackSun, this isn’t an example of the Overton Window, at least not as Wikipedia describes it, that is, “priming [the public] with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison,” Newdow et al. aren’t advocating for a more extreme position than they really want, but for, well, what they really want.

    I realize that this may sound pedantic, but the catch with a real Overton window strategy is that one may end up advocating for ideas that are extreme because they are execrable. There is also the matter that there may not be a well-defined continuum of ideas on which a window may be defined.

    Kayaker:

    Does it make sense to shoot for the gold in front of millions or would it be just as principled to establish legal precedents at state or local levels?

    I doubt that it is particularly less costly to aim at the federal level than the various state levels, why not shoot for the gold?

  • Josha

    I am a peace corps volunteer and took the oath that all federal employees make. We weren’t allowed to cross out “so help me god” when we signed our oath but they said, if we wanted, we could not repeat that part during the oral oath.

    I don’t think these lawsuits make us seem like victims but instead they give us exposure as a minority who demands equal respect under the law. I don’t think we should get used to the way things are because then change may take even longer to come. So many times I’ve been told that America is a Christian nation and what do they point to first to support their argument- the motto “In God We Trust”. I’ve been told that because this is a Christian nation, atheists wouldn’t be fit to serve as commander in chief. And I’ve heard these arguments many times.

  • GullWatcher

    J. J. Ramsey, you are quite right, as described it’s method of moving the window rather than the window itself. I just don’t know if there is a term for just the window itself and how it can move, even without a mover pushing it, so I tend to use “Overton window” to describe that. I probably shouldn’t though – but is there another term to describe the window and how it works?

  • http://rationallyright.com James D. Fich

    @GullWatcher

    I’m not afraid of either religion or government, I’m afraid of religion IN our government, and that is a very legitimate fear.

    It is a legitimate fear…but really is this the church/state line we need to fear? Let’s focus on the real dangers of religion IN government (like so called Intelligent Design), and not fear public displays of personal faith (even from government officials).

  • Luther Weeks

    This is a change that could threaten our very way of life:

    Crusades, fear, choice, corporations that pray (on us), faith based initiatives that feed fat cats…

  • GullWatcher

    @James D. Fich

    Let’s focus on the real dangers of religion IN government (like so called Intelligent Design), and not fear public displays of personal faith (even from government officials).

    I have no problem with an individual’s public profession of personal faith, but the Chief Justice of the United States in the performance of one of the duties of his office is not for the moment a private individual, and his personal beliefs have no place in administering the oath of office (if indeed those are his personal beliefs and not just rote). So yes, this IS a good place to draw the line.

    It’s allowing this kind of minor rot to accumulate without protest that has helped to land us where we are, fighting to get back to the more progressive standards of two hundred years ago.

  • http://www.warrensenders.com WarrenS

    The presence of godfolk at political functions (unless they’re spectators) is a throwback to the days when politicians (that is to say, kings) required the approval of the “Higher Authority” to rule. The relationship of Brahmins and Kshatriyas in Indian history is another powerful example.

    Any priest of any sort, issuing an invocation or prayer at an inaugural ceremony, is recalling those times. The notion that a leader derives his/her authority from a “Higher One” leads inexorably to the Unitary Executive theory; if the President does it, it’s not illegal — because the President’s power comes, not from the Consent of the Governed, but from the Blessings of the Almighty.

    There should be no religious presence at political functions; authority in American democracy is supposed to derive from the Consent of the Governed, not the imprimatur of a conjectured Deity.

  • http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/1/7/182624/5089/36/681356 WayBeyondSoccerMom

    I posted a diary about the lawsuit update at Daily Kos.

  • http://www.abandonallfear.co.uk Alex Fear

    @Gulliwatch

    Heh, why should it bother me? I’m a Brit and at the next election I’ll be voting for an atheist anyway.

    FYI I’m aware of the facts, but I was referring to the PE not the swearing in guy.

    I don’t recall accusing people of whining, but for some reason you felt the need to mention people were whining?

    ;)

  • GullWatcher

    @Alex Fear

    Sorry, I didn’t realize you were were off on a related thing about the president elect instead of what the post was about (the lawsuit over what the chief justice says).

    You say you didn’t accuse people of whining? Well, you said “the way you make such a big deal over it” and also “throw all your toys out of the pram”, which pretty much sounded like it to me.

    A Brit you say? How fortunate for you (I mean that seriously, not sarcasm). A goodly number of your religious wackos got shipped our way a long time ago. I wish there was somewhere we could send them on to….

    Mars would have been nice for that if we hadn’t dropped the ball on the whole space thing.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    Even if we won the case (which I seriously doubt), I’d expect Obama to add religious garbage on his own.

  • http://rationallyright.com James D. Fich

    As far as I can tell, having the Chief Justice administer the oath is not actually a requirement of his office but a courtesy and part of the ceremony. So I’m not really sure what the basis of the case is going to be in the first place.

  • http://www.abandonallfear.co.uk Alex Fear

    @Gulliwatch

    LOL!

    Ha I think all your wackos are homebred. On a slightly more serious tangent, first pilgrims they fled the UK to escape the King and his control over the church.

    Which is why they established the rule of “separation of church and state” – it was to protect the church.

    But do carry on, I find these discussions fascinating… :)

  • http://www.abandonallfear.co.uk Alex Fear

    BTW I thought of an even better secular inauguration phrase for use, how about:

    “So help me people of America”

    Still doesn’t exactly sound right… perhaps the whole thing needs to be changed?

  • Pingback: Frivology » Blog Archive » Suing Over Inauguration

  • Another Patriot

    Hello Luther! FYI, seriously, be thankful for those Christian Crusaders (anomaly in Christian history) and their success in pushing back the advancing Muslims (though, unsuccessful in retaking Jerusalem, apparently due to Richard the Lion Hearted’s flagging enthusiasm) because if the Muslims had succeeded in taking Europe, and if your ancestors hailed from Europe, more likely than not, you’d be a Muslim today, not an Atheist.

  • Another Patriot

    As all of you must know, there is no specific mention of separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights – 1st Amendment or elsewhere in the Constitution (rather that concept emanates from interpretations of what our beloved letter-writer meant). Yet, the Constitution does embrace a separation, that Government must keep it’s polluting hands off our Faith(s) and out of our Churches. It’s called Freedom of Religion (Faith), and the PROTECTION against the Establishment of Religion (in other words, a Government Church or a Government Faith or a Government Deity). It means the Government must not force or coherce or demand us to worship in any particular way. This PROTECTION of freedom of faith exists for the religious AND the non-religious. As Atheists, each of you have beliefs, each of you have a faith…that is, a faith in NO GOD. So be glad, it’s WE THE PEOPLE who get to decide very specifically in what or whom we have faith or don’t have faith. Rejoice that you get to decide, NOT the government. Be happy government is PROHIBITED from deciding for you. And yet, don’t despair that faith-based verbage has so neatly interwoven itself into the fabric of America’s public forums, in our Constituion, in our Courts, on our money, in our Pledge of Allegiance, in our schools, at our Presidential Inagurations…because the key is these mentions of Faith and GOD are NEUTRAL, and that neutral references by government or it’s members is not Unconstitutional. In fact, given the history of America (largely settled by colonists searching to resettle where they could freely, without compulsion, worhip according to their various faiths) such NEUTRAL faith-based references are very Constitutional…because, again, government is not forcing, cohercing, or demanding we worship a state chosen deity or faith (being an uncomfortable Atheist, while I do sympathize, doesn’t count). And, finally be glad the Newdows of this world have always stepped up when they’ve, rightly or wrongly, perceived any shifts away from government neutrality in faith. Therefore, this Friendly Christian (who wasn’t always a Bible Beater, does not cater to religion, but caters to JESUS) says: KEEP THE FAITH!

  • Siamang

    And yet, don’t despair that faith-based verbage has so neatly interwoven itself into the fabric of America’s public forums, in our Constituion, in our Courts, on our money, in our Pledge of Allegiance, in our schools, at our Presidential Inagurations…because the key is these mentions of Faith and GOD are NEUTRAL, and that neutral references by government or it’s members is not Unconstitutional.

    If it’s neutral, why not take it out?

    I mean, are you one of those people who say “hey, what’s the big deal, why get upset over such a little thing…” until you say well, then take it out, or replace the word “God” with the name of some other deity. Then there’s a huge freak-out and it immediately becomes clear that it *wasn’t* such a little deal after all.

    Like when those Christians freaked out and had to be restrained when a Hindu holy man gave like the one non-Christian invocation before congress in the last 200 years.

    I’ll also ask: Is it REALLY neutral to ask someone to swear before God?

    I mean, the oath of office is pretty explicit in the Constitution. While we’re both staring at it, please show me where in the oath of office the words “… so help me, God” appear.

    They don’t. Now if you asked me which is more “neutral”, it would be to use the text the founders explicitly prescribed, and not add little bits here and there.

    If “so help me God” is neutral, then is “so help me, though there be no God”?

  • Rod

    In my opinion, this is a nonissue. How can someone saying so help me God in an oath cause one to sue in court? This is just this guy Newdow being “thorn-like” and not substantive. The guy taking the oath is saying it, not an atheist. I suppose when an atheist becomes president, I’ll watch the inauguration and when that one leaves that part out, I’ll watch the former president shake his hand and listen to the speech and watch the parade.

  • Chris

    I truly hope atheists push it harder, because you’ll may find that people who know God will push back. Let me put it this way, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, those aren’t in the constitution, those are amendments.

    The constitution could be amended to eliminate the separation of church and state.

    Also, what’s a MUSLIM inauguration? Muslims believe in GOD. This was not a Christian inauguration this was an American inauguration. Only the most foolish people, and rebellious teenagers, don’t believe in some kind of higher power. We call that God. Do you also not believe amoebas exist?


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