In 1954, Congress amended Title 36 of the United States Code by adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. California Education Code section 52720 requires appropriate patriotic exercises to be practiced in every public elementary school every day. Elk Grove Unified School District’s policy required the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance every day pursuant to section 52720 of the California Education Code. Michael A. Newdow’s daughter attended a public school in the Elk Grove Unified School District in California. Each day, teachers at the school led the students in a voluntary recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which included the words “under God.” Newdow, being an atheist and divorced with “shared physical custody” of his daughter, challenged the constitutionality of Elk Grove Unified School District’s requirement that teachers lead their classes in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Newdow filed suit in federal district court in California claiming that Elk Grove’s recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance violated the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause to the Constitution due to the words “under God” being included and thus, his daughter was being subjected to religious indoctrination. The district court dismissed Newdow’s claim on the ground that he lacked legal standing because he was divorced from Sandra Banning, the mother of his daughter, and that he did not have legal custody of his daughter. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling, deciding that Newdow did have holding as a parent to sue and that the school district’s policy violated the establishment clause. The school district appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which granted review.
Does Michael A. Newdow, have legal standing to sue under Article III of the Constitution, and if so, did Elk Grove Unified School District policy of leading willing students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance violate the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause, and if so, did Elk Grove violate the 14th Amendment rights of Newdow protecting citizens from any state laws that deny any rights or immunities of citizens of the United States? Reasoning:
Justice Stevens delivered the opinion for the Court, holding that Newdow lacked “prudential standing” to sue. Stevens evokes Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737 (1984) to define prudential standing as “judicially self-imposed limits on the exercise of federal jurisdiction.” Stevens continues by stating that Newdow’s parental status is defined by California’s domestic relations law, who’s standing to sue is currently disputable due to the fact that he does not have full legal custody. Stevens adds that because the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit is much more familiar with California law, the Court is compelled to practice judicial jurisprudence and defer to its ruling. Considering that Newdow was deprived by California law to sue as next friend, the Court finds that Newdow lacks prudential standing to bring the case to federal court. Stevens fails to address any of the issues regarding the 1st Amendment and 14th Amendment that were brought before the Court. Decision:
Michael A. Newdow does not have legal standing to sue under Article III of the Constitution because Newdow was deprived under California law the right to sue as next friend which finds him lacking in prudential standing to sue in federal court. Concurring Opinions:
Chief Just Rehnquist, alongside Justice O’Connor and Justice Thomas concur in the judgment in separate opinions, but differ on the majority reasons and also go into details as to why they would uphold the school district’s policy despite First Amendment objections. Rehnquist writes that Newdow did in fact have legal standing; but due to the Court’s new standing principle, stating that it is improper for federal courts to hear a claim by a plaintiff whose standing is based on family law rights that are in dispute, the Court can agree that Newdow lacked prudential standing to sue on behalf of his daughter. Rehnquist continues by the Pledge of Allegiance is not a religious exercise but a “declaration of belief in allegiance and loyalty to the United States flag and the Republic it represents.” Reciting the Pledge is merely a patriotic activity and in no way are participants pledging allegiance to any particular God, faith, or church. Rehnquist claims that to give a parent some sort of “heckler’s veto” would serve to cause an “unwarranted extension of the Establishment Clause” which would lead to the prohibition of a worthwhile patriotic observance.
Justice O’Connor agrees in full with Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion but has a few extra supporting arguments. O’Connor claims that the Pledge of Allegiance passes the endorsement test which is set to prevent the government from giving special preference to a particular religion or faith. He also states that religious commemoration in public serves to “solemnize an occasion and not to invoke divine provenance.” Because the history of the United States has religious roots, it is not unconstitutional to invoke religion as long as it is vague.
Justice Thomas also agrees with the Chief Justice but expanded on his opinion regarding the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the 14th Amendment. Thomas shows that even though students may feel peer pressured to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, they are not subject to coercion to do so. He goes on to state that the Establishment Clause is in no way implicated and is virtually a non-issue. He expands that the Pledge of Allegiance does not infringe on the any free-exercise rights, and therefore it is constitutional Impact:
Because of the way that the case was decided, I believe that this case was not as powerful as it could have been in affecting the United States. The constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance was left alone in the opinion. The concurring Justices did not claim that the Pledge of Allegiance infringed on a citizens First and 14th Amendment rights mostly because of our religious historical tradition as a nation and that the Pledge of Allegiance is not mandated by the Government. It was nice that the Court deferred its judgment on Newdow’s standing to the appeals court because it showed an unusual strong level of judicial jurisprudence and protected the individual rights of states to govern its citizens. I agree with Chief Justice Rehnquist’s assessment that this ruling was “good for this day only,” because the Justices succeeded in tackling the issue of standing at its core while being able to agree unanimously on the issue, albeit with some different accounts as to why.