America’s most litigious atheist, Michael Newdow of California, was handed a defeat today by U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton in Newdow’s attempt to prevent President-elect Barack Obama from saying "so help me God" as part of his official oath of office on Inauguration Day.
The Constitution states that the president must say: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
For more than a century — though it’s unclear if the tradition dates back to George Washington — presidents have been adding "so help me God" to that pledge.
Newdow, who lost a battle in the U.S. Supreme Court to have the words "under God" excised from the pledge of allegiance, is one of 18 people and 10 atheist organizations who are suing U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and two of the pastors who will be part of the Inaugural ceremony, Rev. Joseph Lowery and Rev. Rick Warren.
The atheist groups have no problem with President-elect Obama uttering the phrase himself if he wants to, they say. Their problem is Roberts saying it first, as if the phrase are part of the official oath.
"If President-elect Obama (as a black man fully aware of the vile effects that stem from a majority’s disregard of a minority’s rights, and as a Democrat fully aware of the efficacy his Republican predecessor’s ‘so help me God’ oath additions) feels that the verbiage formulated by the Founders is so inadequate that he needs to interlard his oath with a purely religious phrase deemed unnecessary by the first twenty presidents, Plaintiffs have no objection at this time," they say. "The President, like all other individuals, has Free Exercise rights, which might permit such an alteration.
"No such Free Exercise rights, however, come into play on the part of the individual administering the oath to the President," they assert.
So they seek to prevent Roberts from making the heavenly acknowledgement, though Roberts’ attorney says that Obama wants to say it.*
They also want to prevent Lowery from delivering the benediction and Warren the invocation.
The official references to God, the plaintiffs argued, "are completely exclusionary, showing absolute disrespect to plaintiffs and others of similar religious views, who explicitly reject the purely religious claims that will be endorsed, i.e., (a) there exists a God, and (b) the United States government should pay homage to that God."
Attorney generals from all 50 states and the Justice Department asked Walton to throw the case out of court.
Newdow had made previous attempts to prevent President Bush from saying "so help me God" during his 2001 and 2005 inaugurations as part of the official oath.
* Since corrected.