(3rd Add: Includes comments from House Speaker Dennis Hastert.)
(CNSNews.com) - A federal judge in California Wednesday ruled that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional.
The case was brought by two families represented by Michael Newdow, an atheist whose case before the U.S. Supreme Court was thrown out because it was brought on his daughter's behalf and he did not have custody of her.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton said the words "under God" violate the right of school children to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God." According to the Associated Press, Karlton said he was bound by precedent of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Newdow in 2002.
Conservatives were quick to condemn the ruling.
"Today's ruling by a federal judge who sits in the 9th Circuit is yet another assault on American principles. The Founding Fathers believed that our Creator gave us certain inalienable rights," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
"The Pledge of Allegiance simply reinforces the beliefs that led to the birth of our great nation. It is an oath of our fidelity to our country, and I am disappointed that the court chose to rule against this American treasure," Hastert added.
"This is an extraordinary and blatant display of judicial activism. Judge Lawrence Karlton relied on the activist ruling of the Ninth Circuit which was rendered inoperable by the Supreme Court's ruling on this issue last year," said Kay Daly, president of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, in a statement.
"He claims it was precedent, but as an experienced judge, he knows better. Clearly, this is a ruling by a judge who is obviously an activist who legislates from the bench to enact his own agenda," added Daly.
Daly said the latest Pledge of Allegiance ruling demonstrates why Judge John Roberts should be confirmed to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This is precisely the reason we need Judge Roberts to be confirmed as Chief Justice. He's made it clear that he puts the law and the Constitution first. And he's made it clear that he won't substitute his own values for the clear commands of the law," said Daly.
Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, called the ruling "dismaying" but "not surprising."
"This history of the Pledge of Allegiance illustrates that the phrase 'under God' is a permissible acknowledgement rather than an establishment of religion. If the Pledge established or tended to establish a religion, then that would have happened during the past 50 years of its existence," said Staver in a statement.
"Day after day we have recited the Pledge from the classroom to the stateroom, from private meetings to public events, and not once has it tended to establish a religion," Staver said. "Today's ruling illustrates why we need judges who are umpires applying settled law rather than activists intent on imposing their own ideology."
The Liberty Counsel filed a brief in the Newdow case when it was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The counsel also plans to file a brief in this case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals followed by the Supreme Court if it goes that far.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which specializes in constitutional law, called Wednesday's decision "legally flawed" adding that it "underscores the importance of who serves on the Supreme Court of the United States."
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, expressed hope that the "flawed decision" will eventually be overturned.
"This is another example of a federal district court exhibiting hostility toward a time-honored tradition which has been defended by numerous Justices including Justice O'Connor who said eliminating such references 'would sever ties to a history that sustains this nation even today,'" said Sekulow in a statement.
"The Pledge clearly acknowledges the fact that our freedoms in this country come from God, not government," Sekulow added.
One of the groups involved in the suit, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is challenging Newdow in the case, also pledged to appeal the ruling immediately to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"To protect the right for every child to recite the Pledge, we will immediately appeal this decision to the 9th Circuit," Derek Gaubatz, director of litigation for the Becket Fund, said in a statement.
Newdow, Humanists, liberals praise ruling
"A federal judge did as he was supposed to do and upheld the Constitution. We should be thankful that we have judiciary that will do that," said Newdow.
The nation's oldest and largest Humanist group, the American Humanist Association, applauded the ruling. Newdow was named AHA Humanist Pioneer in 2004.
AHA, which was founded in 1941, has over 100 local affiliates and is "dedicated to ensuring a voice for those with a positive nontheistic outlook, based on reason and experience, which embraces all of humanity," its press release stated.
"The practice of reciting the Pledge in public schools specifically targets children, inculcating them with a monotheistic message not held by millions of Americans," said AHA President Mel Lipman in a statement.
"This is not a passive reading of a historic document but an active swearing of a loyalty oath to one's country and, since 1954, an avowal that our nation exists 'under God,' which is tantamount to prayer," added Lipman.
"The First Amendment does not require hostility toward religion, but mandates government neutrality toward religion. By imposing a religious belief on those without such beliefs, the current version of the Pledge utterly fails this test," Lipman said.
"This ruling prevents disfranchisement and promotes religious liberty in America. Enforced conformity to a particular religious position is wrong. Humanists will remain vigilant in protecting the religious liberty of public school students," Lipman concluded.
The AHA submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of Newdow in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow.
A religious watchdog group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also applauded the ruling.
"The court's decision was correct as a matter of Establishment Clause jurisprudence," said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan. "The Constitution forbids government to intervene in religious matters.
"America is a very diverse nation," Khan added. "We have some 2,000 different denominations and faith groups, as well as many Americans who choose no religious path at all. It is wrong for public schools to ask students to affirm a religious belief in order to express their patriotism."
"America faces many challenges today," Khan concluded. "We can best meet those challenges if we are united as a people. Americans should never be made to feel excluded from our national life because they have the 'wrong' views about religion."
See Earlier Stories:
On Flag Day, Supreme Court Rejects Pledge Case (June 14, 2004)
More Legal Challenges Ahead, Senator Says (June 14, 2004)
Appeals Court Refuses to Review Pledge of Allegiance Ruling (Feb. 28, 2003)
Pledge of Allegiance 'Unconstitutional,' Court Says (June 26, 2002)
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