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At least one spectator attending President George W. Bush’s inauguration Jan. 20 won’t be bowing his head when Protestant ministers offer blessings before and after the ceremony. In fact, Sacramento, Calif., atheist Michael Newdow would prefer that the Rev. Louis Leon of the District and Pastor Kirbyjohn Caldwell of Houston not recite prayers at the inaugural at all — and he has filed a First Amendment lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. to stop them. “The guy will be swearing to uphold the Constitution, and he will be violating it at the same time,” says Newdow, referring to Bush, who, like every other president since 1937, has invited clergy to offer inaugural blessings. “Come on, he’ll be going to church in the morning. He can pray there. Tax dollars should not be spent making me feel like an outsider, a second-class citizen.” His lawsuit, Newdow v. Bush, is set for a hearing before Judge John Bates Jan. 13. It was first assigned to Judge Paul Friedman, but he recused. No reason for the recusal was given. Before Friedman joined the court in 1994, he was a partner at the firm of White & Case. A firm spokeswoman confirms that White & Case has been engaged to give “counsel and advice” to groups planning the inauguration. Newdow went to court over the prayers at Bush’s 2001 inaugural as well, but his suit then was tossed for lack of standing. He hopes the fact that he will actually be attending the ceremony this time and will suffer what he says is the First Amendment harm in person will get him over the standing hurdle. He obtained tickets as a member of the public through the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “I didn’t get the ticket just for standing, though,” Newdow says coyly. “I really wanted to attend.” Newdow made headlines last year for challenging the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance before the Supreme Court. He lost that case in June, also over standing: He has only partial custody of his daughter, in whose public school the Pledge is recited. But Newdow is not taking no for an answer on the Pledge issue, either. He has filed a new suit in the Eastern District of California, renewing his own objections to the Pledge as a taxpayer, but also adding eight other unnamed atheists and agnostics who do not have similar custody issues. A physician and lawyer, Newdow has lined up atheist plaintiffs nationwide and plans to file Pledge challenges in all the federal circuits in coming months. Next up, he says: the 5th and 11th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals. He hopes an ensuing circuit conflict will put the case back before the high court so it can rule on the merits. “My odds of winning are better in 11 circuits than in one,” he says. “I am hoping somewhere to find two judges who believe in the Constitution. It’s about time someone does.” The government is asking the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to dismiss Newdow’s lawsuit, according to a court filing released Monday. Prayers at presidential inaugurals and legislative sessions go back to 1789, the government said. “There is no reason to reverse course and abandon a widely accepted, noncontroversial aspect of the inaugural ceremony,” it said. Associated Press reports contributed to this story.

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