California Atheist Wanted to Draw Line

An atheist says he was trying only to draw a line between church and state — not provoke a national furor — when he went to court to challenge the Pledge of Allegiance.

Two years ago, Michael Newdow, a Sacramento doctor who holds a law degree and represented himself, sued because his second-grade daughter was compelled to listen to her classmates recite the pledge at the Elk Grove school district.

On Wednesday, a federal appeals court declared that reciting the pledge in public schools is unconstitutional because of the words "under God" inserted by Congress in 1954.

"Many people who are upset about this are people who just don't understand," Newdow said Wednesday during an interview at his suburban Sacramento home. "People have to consider what if they were in the minority religion and the majority religion was overpowering them."

Newdow said he sued the school district and Congress, among others, in an effort to restore the pledge to its pre-1954 version.

"Congress never intended to force people to worship a religion that they don't believe in" when they added the words "under God" to the pledge, he said.

The decision swept Newdow into a media storm and left his answering machine full of threatening messages. He wouldn't characterize the threats, saying only that they were "personal and scary."

"I feel like I'm not a real American because I won't uphold the pledge," he said.

Newdow said his family and daughter have also been threatened because of the suit. He declined to talk about his daughter, saying only that she was "in a safe place."

Should his suit over the pledge reach the Supreme Court on appeal, Newdow said he still plans to represent himself. "I've done OK so far," he said.