News and Notes

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By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

On March 11, Michael Newdow suffered two setbacks in the type of church/state separation cases that have made him famous. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 in the first suit that the words “In God We Trust” are constitutionally permissible on coins and currency, and later ruled 2-1 against him in his second suit against the pledge of allegiance in public schools.

In a 2002 case, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in Newdow’s favor on the pledge of allegiance, but he lost at the Supreme Court not on the merits of his case, but on standing, as he was not his daughter’s custodial parent. So Newdow found new plaintiffs, but this time the panel decided that “one nation, under God” is a patriotic statement, not a religious one.   In the majority opinion, Judge Carlos Bea wrote that “Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism. The phrase ‘one nation under God’ does not turn this patriotic exercise into a religious activity.” Bea was joined in the majority by Judge Dorothy Nelson.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in dissent that the 1954 law adding “under God” to the pledge was “designed to promote religion and to indoctrinate schoolchildren with a religious belief. The teaching of religious views is the function of the family and the church, not the state and the public school system.”

Reinhardt reluctantly joined the majority in the national motto case, as the US Supreme Court in 1989 cited “In God We Trust” as a mere “reference to our religious heritage.”

To an atheist, both decisions are patently absurd. I cannot imagine that this court’s rulings could have been made by anyone but a Christian fulfilling a personal desire for government to endorse his god beliefs. I would love to see one honest judge recuse himself from an Establishment Clause case because he is an observant Christian. And why are Christians not denouncing these decisions for denying that god has religious significance? 

Cartoon Intifada redux. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, received anonymous death threats from Somalia after a newspaper published one of his panels that depicted the head of the prophet Mohammed on the body of a dog. Commendably, several Swedish newspapers reprinted the cartoon to demonstrate solidarity with the cartoonist’s right to free expression. In shameful contrast, no major American newspaper or magazine published the Danish cartoons of Mohammed that ignited widespread violence a few years ago, for fear of offending Muslim sensitivities.

Irish police broke the assassination plot and arrested four men and three women, from Morocco and Yemen. They planned to kill Vilks to collect a $100,000 reward, with an additional $50,000 bonus to slit his throat. The group that offered the rewards also offered $50,000 to kill the editor of the paper that published Vilks’ drawing. In January, Danish police shot and killed an assassin who had tried to kill Kurt Westergaard, who had pictured Mohammed wearing a bomb as a turban.   In the U.S., police arrested Colleen LaRose, a Pennsylvania woman who posted online as “JihadJane,” who may be part of the conspiracy. Her computer contained an email from someone in South Asia who instructed her to kill an unnamed person in Sweden. “I will make this my goal till I achieve it or die trying,” La Rose reportedly replied.

Conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education defeated a proposal that would have added a requirement to the history standards to require students to examine the reasons for the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The proposal was defeated on strictly partisan grounds, with all five Democrats voting in favor and all seven Republicans voting against.

The Establishment Clause, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” is the foundation of court decisions that have defined our version of the separation of church and state. Social conservatives often argue that this principle has no legal basis, since “separation of church and state” is not mentioned in the constitution. Perhaps they will require that future textbooks have the Establishment Clause blacked out. Earlier they removed Thomas Jefferson from a list of Enlightenment thinkers who inspired political change, because he supported separation.

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