Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision allowing the words “under God” to remain in the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t just a victory for those who believe that recognizing the divine is an integral part of American culture. The 8-0 ruling also finally drew the line against a decades-long trend of allowing people to bring lawsuits challenging federal laws just because they don’t like those laws, without having to prove actual injury from the laws as the Constitution requires. This was a victory for those, like me, who think that litigation has run amok in our country, and that the courts, which by their nature are not democratic, are not the proper place to try to change public policies with which one disagrees.
The plaintiff in the Pledge case, Michael Newdow, is a physician and a lawyer. He also has a third profession: professional litigant on behalf of his pet cause, militant atheism. Newdow has spent around a decade in one federal court or other raising constitutional challenges to the words “in God we trust” on U.S. money and, more significantly, the words “under God” in the Pledge. Since Newdow himself doesn’t have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance if he doesn’t want to, he has found another plaintiff: his young daughter, who has attended schools where the Pledge is recited by teachers and children. Newdow started using his daughter as a stalking horse in his lawsuits when the little girl was about 4 years old.
No matter that the child, born out of wedlock, has never lived with him. No matter that in one of Newdow’s suits, an unsuccessful challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance as recited in Florida schools, the court found that the girl had never attended school in Florida and had long since moved out of the state with her mother. No matter that the girl’s mother, who had had custody of the child since birth, was a devout evangelical Christian who took her daughter to church with her and said her daughter not only recited the words “under God” voluntarily but was upset by the Ninth Circuit’s decision. Never mind, indeed, that Newdow and the mother, Sandra Banning, have been in a prolonged legal battle in family court, where one of the issues has been Newdow’s alleged efforts to undermine the religious beliefs in which the girl has been raised. Newdow just shopped around until he found a court liberal enough to agree with him that the words “under God” violated the First Amendment’s requirement of church-state separation and also that any old person who doesn’t like a law can get it nullified by judicial fiat.
That court would be the San Francisco-based Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the most liberal in the land and notorious for the frequency with which its rulings are overturned by the Supreme Court. Early on in the lawsuit, Newdow sort of pretended that his daughter lived with him and was actually harmed by being forced to recite the Pledge. Later, when Banning went public with her daughter’s actual living arrangements, Newdow shifted his legal grounds slightly, arguing that the words “under God” interfered with his right as a parent to direct his daughter’s religious upbringing or lack thereof. Fortunately eight Supreme Court justices (the ninth, Antonin Scalia had recused himself from the case) ruled that Newdow not only lacked legal standing to challenge the Pledge but might be harming his daughter by doing so. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court:
“In our view, it is improper for the federal courts to entertain a claim by a plaintiff whose standing to sue is founded on family law rights that are in dispute when prosecution of the lawsuit may have an adverse effect on the person who is the source of the plaintiff’s claimed standing.”
That is exactly what I always hoped the Supreme Court would say in this case: Last March, when Newdow was personally arguing his case before the justices (after an unsuccessful attempt to have his daughter forced to listen to him in the Supreme Court hearing room over her mother’s objections), I wrote the following (see my Supreme Court Child Abuse, March 25):
“Newdow has a right to try to use the courts, if they’ll let him, to launch his personal crusade against religion. But dragging a small child into court in order to manufacture a legal case is another story–and that’s what Newdow has been doing since his daughter was about 4 years old. I hope the Supreme Court throws out the case on the ground that Newdow, as an absentee parent, lacks the legal standing to pursue his private vendetta.”
Newdow, as might be expected, became a media darling after the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling. The New York Times’s Supreme Court reporter, Linda Greenhouse, gushed over his “spellbinding performance” when he argued his case. I suggest that he use all that good will he’s built up with the press to try to get the words “under God” expunged from the Pledge in the democratic forum that has the constitutional power to do that, the U.S. Congress–if he can.