Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow

United States Supreme Court542 U.S. 1 (2004)

Facts

Michael Newdow’s (plaintiff) daughter attended a public school in the Elk Grove Unified School District in California (defendant). Each day, teachers at the school led the students in a voluntary recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which included the words “under God.” Michael Newdow, an atheist, brought suit in federal district court in California arguing that Elk Grove’s act of making the students listen—even if they chose not to participate—to the words “under God” each day violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The case was referred to a Magistrate Judge, who concluded that “the Pledge does not violate the Establishment Clause.” The district court adopted that recommendation and dismissed the complaint. Newdow appealed and Sandra Banning, the mother of his daughter, filed a motion to have her daughter dismissed as a party to the lawsuit on the grounds that (1) a state-court order granted her "exclusive legal custody" of her daughter and (2) her daughter did not personally object to saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered Newdow’s case in light of Banning’s motion and reversed, holding that the grant of sole legal custody to Banning did not deprive Newdow of his standing to challenge the school’s policy and that, under California law, Newdow had the right to expose his child to his particular religious views, even if those views contradicted the mother's. The court of appeals also held that the school’s policy, as well as the Congressional Act in 1954 which first added the words “under God” to the Constitution both violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the standing and First Amendment issues.

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