December 31st, 2008
09:00 AM ET
14 years ago

Lawsuit seeks to stop religious references at inauguration

WASHINGTON (CNN) - A number of atheists and non-religious organizations want Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony to leave out all references to God and religion.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Washington, the plaintiffs demand that the words "so help me God" not be added to the end of the president's oath of office.

In addition, the lawsuit objects to plans for ministers to deliver an invocation and a benediction in which they may discuss God and religion.

An advance copy of the lawsuit was posted on a Web site by Michael Newdow, a California doctor and lawyer who has filed similar and unsuccessful suits over inauguration ceremonies in 2001 and 2005.

The new lawsuit says in part, "There can be no purpose for placing 'so help me God' in an oath or sponsoring prayers to God, other than promoting the particular point of view that God exists."

Newdow said references to God during inauguration ceremonies violate the Constitution's ban on the establishment of religion.

Newdow and other plaintiffs say they want to watch the Inaugural either in person or on television. As atheists they contend having to watch a ceremony
with religious components will make them feel excluded and stigmatized.

"Plaintiffs are placed in the untenable position of having to choose between not watching the presidential inauguration or being forced to countenance endorsements of purely religious notions that they expressly deny," according to the lawsuit.

Among those named in the lawsuit are Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, who is expected to swear in the new president; the Presidential
Inauguration Committee, known as PIC; the Joint Congressional Committee on
Inauguration Ceremonies and its chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of
California; and the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee and its commander, Maj.
Gen. Richard Rowe, Jr.

The two ministers scheduled to participate in the ceremony also are named - Rev. Rick Warren and Rev. Joe Lowery. The document includes a quotation from
Warren on atheists: "I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says,
'I don't need God.'"

In a phone interview with CNN, Newdow said he didn't name President-elect Barack Obama in the suit because in addition to participating as a government
official at the ceremony he also possesses rights as an individual which allow
him to express religious beliefs.

"If he chooses to ask for God's help I'm not going to challenge him," said Newdow. "I think it's unwise."

Newdow said as a member of a racial minority Obama should have respect for atheists who also are members of a minority.

Newdow said religious references in the inauguration ceremony send a message to non-believers.

"The message here is we who believe in God are the righteous, the real Americans," he said.

Newdow said it's unconstitutional to imply atheists and others are not as good.

Newdow acknowledged his suit is unlikely to be successful.

"I have no doubt I'll lose," he said, adding that he hoped to eventually succeed through appeals and that future inauguration ceremonies would exclude religious references.

Filed under: Inauguration
soundoff (259 Responses)
  1. New Yorker

    majority rules here and what percentage of U.S. citizens still believe in God?

    December 31, 2008 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  2. Irving, TX - Loves President Obama

    OMG! are you kidding me......What happen to freedom of speech....

    So its okay for the last 43 president to say it, but not the first black president.....

    Some people should just keep their mouth closed......Turn off your TV and guess what you want have to hear it.

    Sue all you like and don't for the money you are using states "IN GOD WE TRUST" are you going to stop you pay checks from coming.....

    Get over it WE/YOU have a BLACK president..........

    Love you President Obama and Family....

    December 31, 2008 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  3. Larry in Houston

    There should not be a lawsuit over this, period.......

    This type of "swearing in" and hand placed on a Bible has been going on for the last 200 years....ever since George Washington became our first President....and we use this for other offices throughout this great nation, from the Mayor's Office, Up.......

    This should be a non issue.....

    Larry C.
    Houston, Texas

    December 31, 2008 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  4. Paul C.

    Even though I'm a moderate and I proudly voted for Obama, I have to say some people don't know the term "when it's not broken, don't fix it". There is no harm to anyone if the President Elect says the oath with "so help me God". I understand how the atheists feel alienated and they are just as American as any Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. But this person obviously has way too much time on their hands and or he is trying to make himself known and famous, maybe a big chip on the shoulder and an ego the size of Mars. The President Elect saying those words on a bible is not going to turn the atheists into converts or have priests banging down their doors tying them up and forcing to convert. It is used in an oath of office every four years. Please, this man should turn his time and energy into helping this country get back on its feet instead of wasting the public's time and his own money for something that he will never win. More important things to worry about than this, come on!

    December 31, 2008 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  5. PJP in OK

    For you people that keep bringing up "the separation of church and state", you really ought to look up what it really means instead of just flying off at the mouth, or with your fingers (typing). The really meaning of separation of church and state is: the state was not to get involved with the churches business, not that the church was not to get involved with the states business.

    December 31, 2008 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  6. Paul in SC

    Complain! Complain! You can never satisfy everyone.

    December 31, 2008 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  7. Paul H

    If we truly are a nation with freedom of religion then Obama should be able to say what he want's at his own Inauguration. If an Atheist ever gets into Office he should have the right to omit God from his Inauguration. If a lawsuit like this goes through there is no end to the rights that will fall because of the very few that are offended. We might as well become Russia if we let something like this happen.

    December 31, 2008 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  8. Atheist

    This is ridiculous. I don't care if he says it, it's what the CONSITUTION says. If the constitution didn't say "Oh, by the way, feel free to leave out God", then i'd leave that dude out.

    Not all of us believe in God, we aren't forced to (Like how you God-lovers aren't forced to believe he doesn't exist)

    We are a secular nation, free from what religion dictates. Thank goodness. (Hint: didn't say Thank God. Is there a shred of actual evidence he was alive? Oh that's right the Church has None.)

    December 31, 2008 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  9. FrankH

    Majority Christians or at least say they believe in God?

    Majority do NOT attend regular services.
    Pronography is a 3 billion dollar industry. Atheist, being a small minority, sure are spending a lot of money.
    War is an even bigger industry.

    Founding fathers Christians?

    Theists maybe but the majority of them did not accept that Jesus was the son of God. Research it and find out for yourselves.

    Every mention of God on our money, government buildings and slogans was done long after our founding fathers were dead and buried, not a t the founding of our country

    December 31, 2008 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
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