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The Supreme Court showed few signs last week that it would clearly resolve the hot-button controversy over whether the words “under God” belong in the Pledge of Allegiance, recited by millions of public school children every day. During a dramatic hour of oral argument on March 24, several justices focused on an issue that could enable them to sidestep the question altogether: whether California atheist Michael Newdow had standing to challenge the wording in the case before them, because of an ongoing custody dispute over his school-aged daughter. Other justices appeared interested in minimizing the religious significance of the words “under God” as a way of upholding the Pledge without undermining the Court’s establishment clause doctrine. Justice David Souter wondered aloud whether the daily recitation of the Pledge makes the religious affirmation implied by the words “so diluted, so far from a compulsory prayer, that it should be beneath the constitutional radar.” Newdow, who argued the case himself, replied that the words “under God” are far from diluted in his view. “I am getting slapped in the face every time” his daughter recites the Pledge, he said. If Newdow loses his case, it won’t be because of his own performance before the Court, said many who watched him last week. Advocates of church-state separation had been fretting that Newdow, who had never before argued a case at the high court, might be unable to temper his passion about the case and about the custody issue intertwined in the case. Instead, Newdow showed he had mastered the case and his emotions, making a forceful presentation that could teach veterans some new argument tactics. Newdow also leavened his legal arguments with personal comments — a risky gambit with the Supreme Court, but one that did not seem to do much damage and may even have helped. His “slap in the face” comment conveyed the injury that he felt — and personalized the dispute in a way that a veteran lawyer would be reluctant to do. At another point, sounding like an engaged parent, Newdow referred to his daughter, now 9 years old. “I love that she is being exposed” to different cultures and religions in school, but not when she is “coerced” by government to recite the Pledge, he said. “He did a magnificent job,” says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Newdow supporter who nonetheless had been so worried about Newdow’s advocacy that he asked the Court last November to give his organization some of Newdow’s argument time. The Court rejected the request, so Newdow was on his own for a half hour, unaccompanied at counsel’s table. Even Sandra Banning, the mother of Newdow’s daughter — he and Banning never married — had complimentary words. “Michael did very well,” she says. She adds, “As a mom, Christian, and American, I am hoping the Court will resolve this issue today and that it is the last time as a nation” that the issue is raised. Banning filed a brief in the case challenging Newdow’s standing and supporting the Pledge as is. Newdow, who prevailed earlier in the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, himself seemed pleased afterward, predicting — as he has all along — that he will win unanimously. “I didn’t feel nervous. They’re people, and it was like a conversation,” Newdow said during a press conference outside the Court. Before and after the arguments, hundreds of demonstrators supported and attacked Newdow’s position that the Pledge amounts to a religious exercise. The Court session began with two references to God — first with the Court marshal’s opening cry that ends with “God Save the United States and this Honorable Court,” and then with the clerk swearing in new members of the Supreme Court bar by asking them to promise to uphold the Constitution, “so help you God.” Significantly, when Chief Justice William Rehnquist called the case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, No. 02-1624, Justice Antonin Scalia stood up and walked off the bench, signaling his recusal in the case. Newdow, in a risky maneuver, had asked Scalia to recuse because of a speech he gave last year that appeared to tip his hand on the Pledge case. Without Scalia, who usually dominates questioning during oral argument, Newdow and the other advocates spoke for unusually long stretches of time without interruption. Newdow went up against U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, as well as Terence Cassidy, a lawyer for the school district. Each argued for 15 minutes, and each led off by challenging Newdow’s standing. “The ultimate decision-making authority is the mother,” said Cassidy. “The school district must look only to one decision-maker. It is the only way a school district can function.” Cassidy barely mentioned the Pledge at all, and all of the questioning from the bench related to standing. He and Olson both fielded questions that seemed skeptical of the idea that Newdow had no stake in the case, but the advocates held their ground. Olson did not talk about the Pledge until well into his argument. He described the Pledge as a “patriotic exercise . . . not a religious exercise.” Especially after 50 years, Olson said, no “reasonable observer” would interpret the Pledge’s “under God” phrase as a religious invocation. The words “under God,” inserted into the Pledge by Congress in 1954, are descriptive, Olson said, and students are not required to say them. Newdow began his argument by turning slightly to face the flag in the corner of the Court chamber and mimicking what students do when they recite the Pledge in school. Every day, he said, his daughter is coerced to place her hand over her heart and declare, in effect, that “her father is wrong” in his atheist views. “She does have a right not to participate,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said. Newdow quickly replied that in the 1992 graduation prayer case Lee v. Weisman, the Court had found the atmosphere in schools “coercive” for students who might otherwise not participate. Justice O’Connor said, “But that was a prayer,” to which Newdow replied, “I’m not sure this [the Pledge] isn’t a prayer.” Said Rehnquist, “It doesn’t sound anything like a prayer.” The words “under God” are “as purely religious as you can get,” said Newdow, not retreating. Later, Newdow said he had also calculated that the two words “under God” amount to a bigger percentage of the text of the Pledge than the two-minute graduation prayer in Lee v. Weisman was in that school’s graduation ceremony. Newdow was also quick to respond when Rehnquist tried to counter his point that the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge was divisive. What was the vote in Congress in 1954 to include the words? Rehnquist asked. It was unanimous, said Newdow. “That doesn’t sound divisive,” Rehnquist said, and Newdow shot back, “That’s only because no atheists can be elected to office.” That triggered applause from the audience, which is almost never heard in the Supreme Court chamber. It was unclear whether the applause was for Newdow’s rejoinder or for the fact that atheists don’t get elected, but in any event Rehnquist angrily admonished the audience that the courtroom would be cleared if any more clapping occurred. As the courtroom settled down, Newdow resumed his attack, telling the Court that, in fact, eight states still have laws against atheists holding office — another point that an advocate other than Newdow might not have made. Editorial intern Adina Matusow contributed to this report.

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