Talking with Michael Newdow

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In a living room littered with stuffed animals, kidsí shoes and Blockbuster videos, Mike Newdow sits cross-legged on the floor eating sherbet and listening to tape after tape of his answering machine messages. "You will be punished. You need to fear for your life," says one caller. Newdow nods, puts down the ice cream and picks up his guitar. "Mike, this is God. Iím really upset with you," says the tape. Newdow strums Paul McCartney's "Blackbird," a strange soundtrack to the steady stream of abuse. "I bet youíve said it, Mike. I bet you've said "my God,í" suggests an exasperated male voice. "Actually," Newdow tells the tape quietly, "what I say is Ďyour God.í"

Thatís one of the first things you notice about this 49-year-old Sacramento area doctor. Even with 20 cameramen camped out on the lawn and the phone ringing every minute and his eight-year-old daughter spending the night somewhere else for her own safety and Newdow himself only having had an hourís sleep since yesterday, heís still pretty picky about language. (Donít get him started on the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English. He has invented his own — "ree" — and uses it in conversation constantly.) Then again, fastidiousness is exactly what you might expect from someone who has spent four years of his spare time fighting in Federal court to take two words out of the pledge of allegiance.

It was while waiting in line to buy soap at a grocery store that Newdow, a lifelong atheist born in the Bronx, began his linguistic crusade. Noticing that all his coins and notes had "in God we Trust" written on them, he decided to use his University of Michigan legal training to sue the government for removal of the phrase. After a bit of research, Newdow decided it would be easier to protest the pledge of allegiance by claiming he didnít want his daughter to say "under God," even though she wasnít in school at the time. He lost while living in Florida, moved to California and sued the local school board with no prior warning. "It would have been nice if heíd come to talk to us first," says Superintendent Dave Gordon. Doing it all on his own, however, was Newdowís speciality. He insisted on representing himself even when Californiaís Ninth circuit court tried to appoint an attorney for him. He would come home from the ER at 6pm and study case law on the Internet until 3am. "It started out as a hobby," says Newdow. "I was passionate about it. I knew I was right." But he was not entirely motivated by altruism. "I was considering running for political office. But in America, if youíre an atheist, you lose." Court was the only place where he stood a chance of winning.

Not that Newdow believes for a moment he has won. He shrugs off Washington's reaction to his case — "Iím disappointed in all of them. They all swore an oath to a God-free constitution,"— and fully expects to take his Sisyphian struggle up to the Supreme Court. There, of course, he plans to launch a separate campaign against the ceremonial opening words. "When they say 'God save this court,í" he says, "the first word out of my mouth will be 'objection!í" The half-dozen other suits he has in motion — against the family law, against Franklin Grahamís prayer at President Bush's inaugural — should keep him busy in the meantime.

But for now there are simpler things to attend to. Night is falling, and Newdow has to call his daughter. "Hey, sugar, itís Daddy," he whispers into the phone. "Love you, miss you, kiss you goodnight." A burly teenager knocks at the door. "Are you the man?" he says. Newdow concedes that he probably is. "You donít have to worry about anything," says the unknown teen. "Okay," Newdow smiles as he closes the door, "now I'm worried." And he sits back down with his guitar, singing a song he penned himself — the Pledge Of Allegiance Got Some Old Religion Blues— while threats of death and hellfire play on in the background.