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Atheists on KOOP Radio: Michael Newdow talks with Allan Campbell, Tuesday, 2:00-3:00 pm

October 5, 2004

On 91.7 FM and also live on the web, KOOP Radio featured attorney Michael Newdow, best known for the Pledge case that went to the US Supreme Court, in an interview with Allan Campbell, Tuesday, October 5, from 2 to 3 pm.

Campbell's weekly radio program, El Gringo Show, addresses the concerns of a diverse, interdependent people under siege by war, empire, patriarchy, race and class hierarchy, heterosexism, and religious extremism. News stories on his program ypically alternate with music, which, in the tradition of such filmmakers as Kenneth Anger and Michael Moore, usually amplifies the issues being covered in both expected and unexpected ways. The songs featured during the October 5th episode were Les McCann and Eddie Harris' "Compared to What," Bruce Springsteen's rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" (written by Woody Guthrie as an answer to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America"), John Lennon's "God," and, inevitably, Funkadelic's "One Nation Under Groove," which concluded the hour.

In addition to being a programmer of record at the radio station, Allan Campbell is also a member of the Atheist Community of Austin, where he currently is serving his second term on its Board of Directors. On June 18 of thisyear, he and another member, Don Baker, addressed the public on behalf of ACA as guests of another KOOP Radio program, Outspoken, hosted by Lonny Stern, regularly heard Friday evenings from 6 to 7. Since late September, both El Gringo Show and Outspoken have been underwritten by ACA as part of its broader outreach to city residents. Long a practicing Doctor of Medicine, Mike Newdow is also an atheist father with a law degree, which he now has put into use to challenge the monotheistic reference in the Pledge of Allegiance. On June 26, 2002, US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit made a decision in his favor, but after agreeing to hear the case, the US Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit's decision on June 14 of this year. Five of the eight Justices (John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer) did so on the grounds that he lacked standing due to an ongoing custody dispute; the other three (William Rehmquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Clarence Thomas) said that he had standing but that the monotheistic reference is constitutional. The ninth Justice, Antonin Scalia, had recused himself from the case. Allan Campbell spoke with Mike Newdow by telephone, just days before the Texas Atheist and Agnostic Conference, where the justifiably famous attorney was the featured keynote speaker. Campbell suggested to Newdow that five of the eight Justices may have been showing tacit respect for his arguments about the current Pledge's violation of the First Amendment by ruling against him on standing alone.

Newdow responded, "With regard to standing, it was rather ironic that Justice Stevens, for instance--who had previously written how the Court shouldn't use standing to get out of deciding important issues--wrote the opinion that, in fact, was just that; and, contrarily, that Justices Thomas and O'Connor and Chief Justice Rehmquist--the ones who generally are rather parsimonious with standing--were the ones who said, Yeah, he does have standing in this case. It was odd. I think it showed that the Court is comprised of individuals who--all of them--want to reach the results they want to reach, [and] will do so with whatever means they have."

Campbell then asked the attorney why he pursued this particular issue.

Newdow answered, "Well, it actually started off with 'In God We Trust' on the coins and currency. I felt that was clearly unconstitutional, but as I did the research, my daughter was about to enter kindergarten, and I didn't want her having to say the Pledge in school, and it turns out to be a much stronger case, because in 1954 Congress passed a law that did nothing but take a Pledge which already existed, which was secular, and put in the two purely religious words, 'Under God.' And by all the Supreme Court precedent, that's clearly unconstitutional."rn rnCampbell brought up Austin's contradictory status as a fairly enlightened city in the Bible Belt, a place where cars bear competing fish symbols, Christian and defiantly secular. He asked Newdow, who lives in northern California, what responses he has been receiving from everyday people outside the Bible Belt.rn rn"I'm sure I get a very skewed sample, 'cause most people who disagree with me, I assume, don't want to come up and talk with me. But the people who do come, almost ninety-plus percent, are supportive and agree and say, We hope you win, and stuff like that. So, I don't know if I can give a really good sample. I'm sure I can't. From what all the polls say, ninety-plus percent of the population is against me on this. But that, I think, is also interesting, 'cause I don't think they ever ask the proper question. They say, Do you want God in the Pledge? And they say, Yeah. And I think they ought to ask the question--these pollsters should say, Do you want government to get involved with religious questions? And I think we'd probably find a strong majority saying no. And that's the issue here. It's not whether or not God is or isn't in our government. It's whether government is taking any position, one way or the other. I'd be just as much opposed to having a Pledge saying, One Nation That Denies the Existence of God. That too is just as wrong."

When asked about his future plans, Newdow revealed that he would be bringing the challenge again on behalf of various families, hopefully in all eleven circuit courts. "The case is overwhelmingly on my side. The facts, the principles, the ideals are all for me. There is no reason I should lose this case. The arguments against it are completely bogus. And everybody knows that. It's just whether a three-judge panel will say what is quite obvious to everybody. And if they do, it will get back to the Supreme Court."

Purely as an autobiographical anecdote, Campbell described what he personally observed at the Travis County Democratic Convention in late March, not long after Newdow delivered his oral argument before the Court. Local leaders pointedly led delegates in the Pledge, many of whom rebelled, either pausing during the "Under God" part or going straight into "Indivisible." Newdow was awfully surprised, until Campbell explained that most delegates are neither elected officials nor seeking elected office. The host also suggested that local rank-and-file Democrats, particularly ones active during the primary season, could constitute another skewed sample.

"The whole point, you know, is that this is a Pledge of Allegiance," Newdow said, "and it's supposed to be this unifying Pledge. And whether or not you agree with whether or ot we should have Pledges, if you accept that we have one and it's supposed to serve that purpose, look what we've done by sticking in this purely religious dogma. And if I win the case, it's going to be just the same. Everybody's going to be saying, 'One Nation--UNDER GOD!' in the middle of the thing, and that's exactly what you don't want to have in a unifying Pledge. And that's clearly why this thing is unconstitutional. And if I win and 'Under God' is taken out, they'll eventually have to change the entire Pledge, if they want to have a unifying Pledge to follow. . . . If they do the one before '54, the people who want 'God' are going to be yelling out 'Under God' in the middle of it. . . . You're going to have the divisiveness, which is exactly what a Pledge of Allegiance is supposed to preclude."

Campbell offered the argument that what was good for what Tom Brokaw has called the Greatest Generation, the people who served during World War II, ought to be good for us now. Newdow, describing himself as "not a big Pledger," responded that fifteen seconds would be better spent honoring the Constitution or, better yet, discussing it. He reminded listeners that the Framers of the Constitution wanted to keep out religion in order not to divide the people of the United States. "It's liberty and justice for all," Newdow said in the reference to the Pledge, "and since 1954, it's liberty and justice for all people who believe in God."

Campbell then brought up the divisive initiatives being pushed by the leadership of US House of Representatives the previous month in anticipation of November 2, including passage of the so-called Pledge Protection Act, which would deny citizens the right to make any challenges to the Pledge in the federal courts. This piece of legislation, which has not been approved by the US Senate, obviously pertains to Newdow.

Newdow said that while the US Congress may have the right to restrict the jurisdiction of the federal courts in some areas, to do so with the Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment, which guarantees the separation of church and state) "just wouldn't comport with the whole idea behind the Constitution." He also brought up the issue of checks and balances. Although he was hesistant these days to say what the US Supreme Court would or would not do, he said that he would be very surprised if it let such legislation stand.

Newdow also said, "I think all these governmental endorsements are unconstitutional--'In God We Trust' on the coins and currency; having the Supreme Court start off, 'God save the United States and this Honorable Court'; Presidents sticking in 'So help me, God' in the middle of the Oath, which, in the Constitution, does not have those words. All of that is an endorsement of religion and an endorsement of an idea that there exists a god. Government's not supposed to do that. That's one of the arguments that I find almost laughable, that people always hold against me: They say, Well, if you're going to get 'Under God' out of the Pledge of Allegiance, what are you going to do next--take 'God' off the money? I say, Yeah. You know, it's like, Well, if you're going to get segregation out of the schools, what are you going to do next--take it out of the water fountains? Yeah, that's right. That's exactly what this thing's about. It's for everybody, and none of this stuff is supposed to be there."

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From the officers:

The audio and video from Steve Bratteng's July 13th lecture are now available.