God to Remain in Inaugural Prayer
Special Report - January 20, 2009
Prayer and references to God will be part of today’s presidential inauguration ceremony, after a federal judge denied an attempt by California atheist Michael Newdow to ban the phrase “So help me God” and prevent clergy from offering prayers during the swearing-in ceremony for Barack Obama. As we previously reported, Mr. Newdow and 11 atheist organizations, including the American Humanist Association, filed a lawsuit on December 30 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It sought to have the court enjoin U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. from using the phrase “So help me God” when he administers the Presidential Oath of Office, and to enjoin the Presidential Inauguration Committee from allowing clergy to offer prayer at this year’s ceremony and in the future. In addition to naming Chief Justice Roberts as a defendant in the lawsuit, the 34-page legal complaint also named Reverend Rick Warren, who is scheduled to give today’s invocation, and Reverend Joe Lowery, who is scheduled to give the benediction. Newdow made similar arguments in two other federal lawsuits filed in 2001 and 2005, which he also lost.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled January 15 that that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing because they failed to show that any real “harm” would be caused by allowing religious references during the inaugural event. Although he did not dismiss the lawsuit, he refused to comply with the plaintiff’s motion to issue a preliminary injunction that would have prevented any religious references and prayer during the event. Judge Walton also said that he did not have authority over the Presidential Inauguration Committee, and he questioned whether he also had the authority to tell Chief Justice Roberts what to do.
Bob Ritter, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said that the plaintiffs were “profoundly disappointed,” and intend to continue the lawsuit. “This case is not about atheists merely ‘feeling offended.’ There is real harm,” he argued, “… all Americans will be injured on January 20 by the Chief Justice, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and other defendants violating the principle of separation of church and state, which is the basis for our religious liberty.”
Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, which defended Pastor Rick Warren in the lawsuit, applauded Judge Walton’s ruling. “Michael Newdow may have thought the third time was the charm with this lawsuit, but thankfully the court agreed with us, and three strikes means he’s out,” Dacus said in a statement. “The very notion that a federal district judge should order either the Chief Justice or the President-elect’s invited clergy what to say or not say is just censorship by another name.”
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