Parental Rights and the Pledge
by Wendy McElroy (e-mail: [May 15th, 2004]

The case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, which challenges the constitutionality of the words "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, stirred a furor in late March when it was heard before the Supreme Court.

On June 26, 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco found in favor of Newdow's claim that 'Under God' violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which mandates a rigid separation of church and state.

But the conflict has raised an entirely different question: Does a parent's custody status determine if he or she has standing in a court of law concerning their child's education, medical care, or other related issues of well-being?

The case is part of the ongoing struggle within society over a non-custodial parent's rights in the event of divorce or estrangement, particularly in the cause of fathers' rights. More broadly stated, the question becomes, "if a non-custodial parent has legal responsibilities, such as child support, does he not have legal rights as well?"

The Supreme Court case revolves around Michael Newdow. He is the atheist who brought a lawsuit against Congress, the president, the state of California and two school districts on behalf of his young daughter who recites the pledge in public school. On June 26, 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco found in favor of Newdow's claim that "Under God" violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which mandates a rigid separation of church and state.

However, according to an order issued by the California Superior Court, the child's mother, Sandra Banning, had "sole legal custody as to the rights and responsibilities to make decisions relating to the health, education and welfare of [the child.] While Newdow had the right to "consult," Banning had "legal control." Following the Ninth Circuit's ruling on Newdow's suit, Banning, a devout Christian, filed a motion with the same court challenging Newdow's standing--that is, his legal right--to bring the lawsuit.

(Until then and during most of Newdow's lengthy court proceedings, the custody arrangement had been informal. Indeed, through separate legal proceedings, he now reportedly has joint legal custody and sees his daughter about 30 percent of the time.)

The main question before the 9th Circuit Court in the second instance was "Does the grant of sole legal custody to Banning deprive Newdow, as a noncustodial parent, of Article III standing to object to unconstitutional government action affecting his child."

On Dec. 4, 2002, the 9th Circuit Court found that Newdow retained certain parental rights and noted, "California state courts have recognized that noncustodial parents maintain the right to expose and educate their children to their individual religious views, even if those religious views contradict those of the custodial parent or offend her."

Moreover, it found that Banning had no right to consent to "unconstitutional government action" on her daughter's behalf and, therefore, had "no protectable interest at stake."

Circuit Court Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez wrote a concurring opinion specifically "to emphasize that in this order we decide that Newdow's legal status under California law vis--vis his daughter does not deprive him of standing."

Newdow also altered his challenge, undoubtedly to make his position before the court more secure. The lawsuit was no longer brought on his daughter's behalf but on his own as a parent. In reviewing this case, therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court will not only consider the separation of church and state but also the legal standing of a noncustodial parent.

In his brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the United States, one of the respondents -- Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson-- presented two questions in this order: First, Newdow's standing; second, constitutionality.Regarding the first, Olson argued, "[T]he prerogative of suing to enforce the child's rights rests exclusively with the mother because, in this case, she has the legal authority to make final and binding decisions concerning the child's 'health, education and welfare'."

The case is a political nightmare, as the Supreme Court knows from the backlash directed at the 9th Circuit Court. On the same day as the decision, an outraged Senate unanimously passed a resolution in support of the existing pledge. According to a Newsweek poll of June 29, close to 90 percent of Americans wanted "under God" to remain. Even the White House sent a brief to the California court expressing opposition to change.

The Supreme Court has the option to throw the Newdow case out on a technicality of "standing." The prospect must be tempting, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the case on anything but its substance. By dismissing the case on "standing," the Supreme Court, without meaning to do so, could deal a severe blow to the important and entirely separate issue of fathers' rights.

It is a shame that these two matters have become interwoven. Many who decry the "attack" on religion would normally be sympathetic to a responsible father who wished to participate in parental rights.

President Bush is an example. He has spoken passionately on behalf of fathers. At the National Summit on Fatherhood, he called being "dad" the greatest duty and most important title a man could ever have. Yet he is likely to applaud loudly if the Supreme Court throws out the "Pledge case."

Just as separation of church and state should live or die on the merits of its substance, so too should the question of a noncustodial parent's standing in court. It is a question that should not be discarded on the back of a technicality.


  • Oyez: Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: Michael Newdow v. U.S. Congress
  • School of Law, University of Missouri-Kansas City: Introduction to the Establishment Clause
  • 'Lectric Law Library: Standing
  • Philadelphia Inquirer : Elk Grove Unified School District And David W. Gordon, Superintendent, Petitioners v. Michael A. Newdow, Et Al.
  • Dr. John W. Baer: The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History
  • The White House: President's Father's Day Proclamation

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