Showdown in Federal Appeals Court this Week Over Atheists’ Inauguration Prayer Suit

Washington, D.C. – Oral arguments will be held this Tuesday at the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. in a lawsuit brought by atheists seeking to stop prayers at presidential inaugurations and use of “So help me God” in the presidential oath. Pacific Justice Institute represents Drs. Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery, who offered prayers at President Obama’s inauguration and are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The suit, filed by frequent litigants Michael Newdow, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and numerous other inpiduals and groups, was dismissed earlier this year by a federal district court. Two prior lawsuits filed by Newdow on the same issue several years ago were also dismissed. This time, the plaintiffs have sought to bolster their arguments by making claims such as, “[W]hen Chief Justice Roberts asked the President to say, ‘So help me God,’ I felt threatened and sick to my stomach.”

In a new twist, just over a week before Tuesday’s hearing, Newdow filed an “emergency” motion asking the appeals court to suspend its practice of beginning court session with the phrase, “God save the United States and this honorable Court” while he is in the courtroom. PJI filed an opposition brief defending the court’s practice, citing numerous Supreme Court and other decisions pointing to the centuries-old practice, with roots in Anglo-Saxon courts, as a thoroughly constitutional tradition. The court quickly denied Newdow’s motion.

PJI Chief Counsel Kevin Snider, who will be attending the oral argument this week, commented, “Prayers designed to solemnize public events have a long and venerable history in our nation. The Constitution simply does not demand that our public institutions be amoral or atheistic.”

Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, stated, “The First Amendment cannot be separated from common sense. While atheists, humanists and freethinkers are a tiny minority in America, they are free to express and practice their lack of faith as they please. That does not mean, however, that the vast majority of God-fearing Americans must be silenced in order to appease these minority groups.”