SAN FRANCISCO An atheist pleaded with a federal appeals court Tuesday to remove the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency, saying the references disrespect his religious beliefs.
"I want to be treated equally," said Michael Newdow, who argued the cases consecutively to a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He added that supporters of the phrases "want to have their religious views espoused by the government."
Newdow, a Sacramento doctor and lawyer, sued his daughter's school district in 2000 for forcing public school children to recite the pledge, saying it was unconstitutional.
The 9th Circuit ruled in Newdow's favor in 2002, but two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he lacked standing to sue because he didn't have custody of the daughter on whose behalf he brought the case. He immediately filed a second lawsuit on behalf of three unidentified parents and their children in another district.
In 2005, a federal judge in Sacramento again found in favor of Newdow, ruling the pledge was unconstitutional. The judge said he was following the precedent set by the 9th Circuit's ruling in Newdow's first case.
Terence Cassidy, a lawyer for the school district, argued Tuesday that reciting the pledge is simply a "patriotic exercise" and a reminder of the traditions of the U.S.
"How is pledging allegiance to a nation under God not a religious act?" Judge Dorothy W. Nelson asked. Cassidy said the pledge has religious elements but is not a religious exercise.
Newdow said the pledge has "tons of religious significance. That's why everyone gets so angry when we talk about ... taking it out."
Nelson asked Cassidy whether removing the words "under God" would make the pledge any less patriotic.
"Not necessarily," he replied, arguing it provided a historical context, not a religious one.
Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and passed a law requiring all U.S. currency to carry the motto "In God We Trust" a year later. Congress first authorized a reference to God on money in 1864.
In describing the historical context for use of the word "God," the government cited the Declaration of Independence, which states that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
In 2005, Newdow sued Congress and several federal officials, arguing the motto's presence on coins and currency violated his First Amendment rights. A federal judge in Sacramento ruled against him last year, and Newdow appealed.
On Tuesday, Justice Department lawyer Lowell Sturgill Jr. said "In God We Trust" is not an endorsement of a particular faith, but simply a patriotic or ceremonial message.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt indicated support for Newdow's position.
The "In God We Trust" motto "affects Mr. Newdow every moment of his life," Reinhardt said. "The government has no compelling interest to put a slogan on a dollar bill."
Newdow said he didn't advocate hostility toward God or religion and respected people's right to their own beliefs. He said he wanted equal respect for atheists.
About 20 Newdow supporters in the courtroom and outside the courthouse wore T-shirts touting evolution and atheism and carried signs supporting the separation of church and state.