Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Newdow Loses "In God We Trust" Challenge; Pledge Case Still Pending

Yesterday in Newdow v. Congress of the United States, (E.D. Cal., June 12, 2006), a California federal district court rejected Michael Newdow's challenge to the constitutionality of "In God We Trust" as the national motto and its use on coins and currency. The court held that Newdow had standing to bring the challenge, finding that Newdow adequately alleged injury-in-fact, causation and redressability. The court dismissed Congress and its Law Revision Counsel as defendants, finding that they are immune from suit under the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 6), since the claim against them is merely that they enacted and published an unconstitutional law. However the court proceeded to the merits of the claim against other defendants (the Secretary of Treasury, the Director of the Mint, the Director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the Pacific Justice Foundation which intervened as a defendant).

In passing on the merits, the court held that it was bound by a 1970 Ninth Circuit decision (Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242 [LEXIS Link]). Relying on that, the court rejected Newdow's Establishment Clause claim, finding that the motto has no theological or ritual impact, but rather merely has spiritual, psychological and inspirational value. The court similarly rejected Newdow's Free Exercise and RFRA claim that his right to exercise his Atheistic beliefs has been burdened by the government's endorsement of monotheism. It said that "In God We Trust" is a secular motto. It also rejected Newdow's attempt to rely on a 1977 Supreme Court decision striking down a New Hampshire requirement that auto owners display license plates with the motto "Live Free or Die".

Meanwhile Michael Newdow has another important case pending before the 9th Circuit-- a challenge to the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. (See prior posting.) Howard J. Bashman has an interesting article in Law.com yesterday discussing the technical question of whether the panel of 9th Circuit judges who hear this appeal will be bound by a prior 9th Circuit decision that found the Pledge's use of "under God" to be unconstitutional. That decision was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court on the ground that Newdow lacked standing. Bashman argues that this had the effect of erasing the 9th Circuit's prior determination on the merits, even though the district court in the case now on appeal upheld Newdow's claim on the ground that it was sill bound by the 9th Circuit determination. If the Supreme Court's dismissal on standing grounds did not wipe out the 9th Circuit's substantive holding, the current 3-judge panel is also bound by the holding of the earlier 3-judge panel.