(Washington, DC, December 30, 2008) Today eleven nontheistic organizations and twenty-nine nontheistic individuals, led by Michael Newdow, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to stop plans to include prayer and a religious oath in the forthcoming inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States.
The complaint was filed by Michael Newdow, famous for litigation on the Pledge of Allegiance, the American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Atheist Alliance International, and others. It addresses constitutional concerns regarding the intended use of the phrase “so help me God” in the swearing-in ceremony and sectarian prayer in the invocation and benediction. Included as defendants in the suit are Chief Justice John Roberts, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Major General Richard J. Rowe Jr., the Reverend Rick Warren and the Reverend Joe Lowery.
“The use of sectarian prayer and religious phrases during the inauguration not only violates a clear reading of the First Amendment, it serves as a justification for the breach of church-state separation in other areas,” said Bob Ritter, staff attorney for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association. “This is a foundational suit–to challenge the origination of many Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause violations.”
In the complaint, which levels six counts against inauguration plans, the plaintiffs declare their belief that Chief Justice Roberts will “infuse the inaugural ceremony with purely religious dogma” in the form of the words “so help me God” added to the secular language of the presidential oath spelled out in the constitution. The plaintiffs further argue that anticipated use of the Bible in the inauguration suggests government endorsement of the specifically anti-atheist pronouncements written therein. Further, the plaintiffs charge that the government will violate the Establishment Clause when it uses inaugural prayers of a clearly religious nature. And they charge that the government will violate the Free Exercise rights of nontheists and others when it requires them “to confront official endorsements of religious dogma with which they disagree” as “the price to pay for observing a governmental ceremony,” one that is “the grandest ceremony in our national existence.”
In response to the observation that, in the past, other suits have been launched concerning sectarian prayer on Inauguration Day, Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, noted that “Those suits were thrown out due to issues of standing. But we’re confident in the current suit, involving multiple plaintiffs, that our standing is sound. We therefore expect this case to move forward.”
The suit was filed today at the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, and calls upon the court to decide the matter before the January 20, 2009, inauguration ceremonies. The full text of the complaint is available online.