Person of the Week: Michael Newdow

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RICH PEDRONCELLI/AP

California's 9th U.S. Circuit Court found in favor of Michael Newdow this week

Thank God for Michael Newdow. If this plucky atheist hadn't stood up for what he believes in, we might still be talking about things that have lasting impact, like the financial meltdown of WorldCom. We might be rehashing news of terrorist threats, or babbling about homeland security, or remembering that there's a World Cup going on. So for cleverly distracting us from these unpleasant topics, Newdow is our person of the week.

We should all thank Newdow for giving us a reason to hope that one day, in the not-too-distant future, we will return to the America of September 10, 2001. To return to those days when we had nothing better to do than bicker over really critical issues like which politician is the most patriotic, or who has the biggest flag on the block. Thanks to Newdow's lawsuit charging the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional (due to that "under God" phrase), we've become reacquainted with that comforting place where flag-waving carries no sorrowful undertones, only simple pride or defiance.

Newdow, a physician with a law degree, a five-year-old daughter and an axe to grind with monotheistic religion, decided he wasn't happy about students at his daughter's school standing to say the Pledge each morning. So he took the Sacramento school district to court, charging the Pledge violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which dictates a strict separation between church and state.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Wednesday, California's 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in Newdow's favor, declaring that the Constitution guarantees people in public places protection from state-sponsored religious declarations. Judge Alfred Goodwin, a Nixon appointee, wrote the decision — a fact congressional Democrats were delighted to share with anyone who'd listen. By Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours later after the initial decision was issued, the same Court placed a hold on the ruling, effectively rendering it moot for the time being. Not to be outdone, the Justice Department demanded a full hearing on the issue.

Despite its brief lifespan, the ruling gave rise to the most spectacular display of religious fervor in recent memory, particularly among elected officials. Suddenly, everyone in public office was going out of their way to proclaim their deep, deep love of the Pledge and their unbending faith in God. Wednesday, nearly the full House of Representatives took time from their busy schedules to recite the Pledge and join hands for a rousing rendition of "God Bless America." Hopefully no one will remind them that 50 years ago, before President Eisenhower inserted it into the Pledge, the "under God" phrase didn't exist. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle declared the decision "just nuts," and President Bush took time from a press conference with G-8 leaders to pronounce the whole thing "ridiculous." (Asked during the same appearance to comment on the brouhaha, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared nonplussed.)

Newdow, meanwhile, spent the week racking up quite a collection of death threats, some vague, some specific, and most of them left on his home answering machine. He seemed quite unmoved by the ire of his fellow citizens, taking reporters around his rose garden Thursday and shrugging off criticism. And then, as if he knew precisely how to annoy his new enemies most, he mused on Thursday's Today show, "I believe I am strengthening the Constitution with my case."

While you wouldn't know it from the media frenzy that followed Wednesday's decision, some lawyers agree with him. They say that in the strictest reading of the Constitution there is no room for religious terminology in what should be a secular space. While some legal experts applauded the intent of Newdow's suit, no one seemed to think the ruling would survive very long. But for pundits and politicians the fuss can go on forever.