A California atheist who has fought for years to have the words "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools won a major legal battle on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled in favor of atheist Michael Newdow, deciding that the reference to God in the pledge violates the rights of children in three California school districts to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God," according to a report by The Associated Press.
Karlton made his ruling based on the precedent set by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in Newdow's favor in 2002 with a decision that stated the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools.
Newdow, a doctor and lawyer, took the case all the way to the Supreme Court last year, which dismissed it on a technicality when it ruled that Newdow did not have full custody of the daughter he had filed suit on behalf of. Newdow's latest victory came after filing an identical lawsuit on behalf of three unnamed parents and their children, according to the AP.
It's unclear when, or if, the Supreme Court — currently in a state of flux as chief justice nominee John Roberts undergoes confirmation hearings and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor awaits retirement — will take up the case.
Senator Jeff Sessions mentioned the ruling during Roberts' confirmation hearing on Wednesday, but Sessions did not ask the nominee what he thought of it because the issue might go before the Supreme Court in the near future. Roberts did say that the court "could be clearer" on issues regarding the separation of church and state.
Newdow would like the court to remove the reference to God in the pledge and bring back its pre-1954 wording, "one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
The original pledge was written by a Baptist minister's son, Francis Bellamy, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing in America and did not include the reference to God. Congress adopted the pledge in 1942 and "under God" was added in 1954.
"I'm passionate about treating people equally," Newdow told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Imagine you send your kids to school every day, and the teachers made them stand up and say, 'We are one nation that denies God exists.' Imagine you are Jewish, and they say, 'We're one nation under Jesus.' Imagine you are Christian, and they say, 'We're one nation under Mohammad.' Do you think it's a big deal? Because that's exactly what goes on against atheists."
Though Judge Karlton said he would sign a restraining order to prevent the recitation of the pledge in three schools in Sacramento County that the plaintiff's children attend, the order will not extend to other districts, or the entire country, unless the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals or Supreme Court take up the case.
The superintendent of one of the districts, Steven Ladd, told the AP that the pledge will continue to be recited until the school receives the restraining order, which he expects to happen any day. "Our board has long supported the Pledge of Allegiance as an appropriate patriotic exercise for willing students," Ladd said.
The decision by Judge Karlton conflicts with an August ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, which affirmed a Virginia law requiring public schools to lead a daily recitation of the Pledge.