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Challenger

Adelle M. Banks Religion News Service

Atheist Michael Newdow – the man behind the case to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance – isn’t offended if you describe his effort to further separate church from state as a “crusade.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed his efforts last year, he didn’t give up.

In recent weeks, Newdow has filed lawsuits on opposite coasts – one to attempt again to get God removed from the pledge, and another to try to stop presidential inauguration prayers.

“I have a right to not have a Pledge of Allegiance that advocates for some religious dogma that I disagree with,” the 51-year-old Sacramento, Calif., emergency physician and lawyer said Tuesday, the day after he refiled his controversial case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.

Newdow also plans to participate by phone in a hearing next Friday in which he hopes to prevent overtly Christian inaugural prayers like the ones said at President Bush’s first inauguration by evangelist Franklin Graham and others.

“It’s one more bit of government’s intrusion of monotheistic religious beliefs in the middle of its activities,” he said of the case to be heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “It’s not allowed to do that.”

After Newdow won an earlier appeals court declaration that “under God” was unconstitutional, he became a national lightning rod for those on both sides of the church-state separation issue. The Supreme Court determined last June that he did not have standing in that case.

“I absolutely think he’s doing good,” said David Silverman, national spokesman for American Atheists, an organization based in Cranford, N.J.

“You can never do bad by bringing important and divisive issues to the forefront and having them discussed,” Silverman said. “Since he’s doing something for a minority that is not spoken for, I think he’s doing very good.”

But Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., thinks Newdow should be careful what he argues for.

Haynes said a continuing backlash to Newdow’s efforts – especially if they’re successful – could lead to rewriting of constitutional law that would weaken the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion.

“All he’s doing is stirring up people in ways that are unfortunate and counterproductive,” Haynes said.

“I think he’s certainly put a face on the freedom-from-religion crowd, just as Madalyn Murray O’Hair did some years ago,” added Haynes, referring to the late atheist leader who succeeded in legally removing organized prayer from public schools. “But, just as in her case, that’s not a good thing for religious liberty necessarily.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said Newdow is “overreacting” in his legal efforts.

“To remove all vestiges of religious expression from government acknowledgment not only would turn the First Amendment upside down but also is contrary to history,” Sekulow said.

But he also said he respects Newdow’s legal maneuvers before the nation’s highest court.

“Do not underestimate this lawyer-doctor,” Sekulow said. “If he’s as good a doctor as he is a lawyer, he’s a good doctor.”

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