Atheist lawyer Michael Newdow, who has unsuccessfully challenged religious trappings of presidential inaugurations past, took his latest dispute--this one involving Barack Obama's inauguration--to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today.
A little background: Last December, Newdow and his fellow plaintiffs sued the Presidential Inaugural Committee and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., among others, in an effort to block Roberts from feeding then President-elect Obama the line “so help me God” at the end of the oath of office and Obama from repeating it. The plaintiffs say the phrase violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs are also suing over other religious remarks by clergy during the larger inaugural ceremony.
Judge Reggie Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied an injunction and ultimately dismissed the suit, saying that the plaintiffs lacked standing. Walton also determined he didn’t have the authority to tell Roberts what to do. At issue on appeal are the plaintiffs’ standing and the mootness of the claims.
Newdow, arguing for himself and the plaintiffs today before Judges Douglas Ginsburg, Brett Kavanaugh and Janice Rogers Brown, said he has suffered “stigmatic” injury. “I think there’s a stigma when you’re an atheist,” he said in court. Atheists, he said, are considered “second-class citizens” in the United States. And he argued that the claims are not moot since there’s a good chance that presidents-elect down the line will also use the phrase “so help me God” during the swearing-in ceremony.
Justice Department attorney Lowell Sturgill Jr. argued that Newdow’s claims are too generalized to support standing. The plaintiffs in large part watched the inauguration on television and through other media, he said. Sturgill also said it is speculative whether presidents-elect in 2013 and later will want to say “so help me God” in their oaths. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. Sturgill noted that Roberts was following Obama’s wish to include the phrase. Newdow did not sue Obama.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly found that ceremonial references to religion do not conflict with the establishment clause, Kavanaugh noted.
Hogan & Hartson associate Dominic Perrella argued for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the private group that coordinated ceremonial events tied to Obama’s inauguration. Perrella said the committee, which no longer formally exists, did not assist the clergy who participated in the inaugural ceremony.