The Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional and should not be recited in public schools because it includes the words "under God," a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
In its 2-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 1954 act of Congress that inserted the phrase "under God" after the phrase "one nation" in the pledge.
The ruling, if allowed to stand, means schoolchildren can no longer recite the pledge, at least in the nine Western states covered by the court.
Reaction to the ruling came swiftly, with President Bush leading a chorus of opponents.
"The president's reaction was that this ruling is ridiculous," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
The appeals court said the phrase "under God" amounts to a government endorsement of religion in violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which requires a separation of church and state.
"A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god,' because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion," Judge Alfred T. Goodwin wrote for the three-judge panel.
The ruling will not take effect for several months, to allow further appeals. The government can ask the court to reconsider its ruling, or it can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it.
"We are certainly considering seeking further review in the matter," Justice Department lawyer Robert Loeb said.
The case was brought by Michael A. Newdow, a Sacramento atheist who objected because his second-grade daughter was required to recite the pledge at the Elk Grove school district. A federal judge had dismissed his lawsuit.
"I'm an American citizen. I don't like my rights infringed upon by my government," Newdow said, calling the pledge a "religious idea that certain people don't agree with."
"I'm trying to strengthen the Constitution," he told Fox News in an exclusive interview Wednesday afternoon. "Take whoever you are out there, find a religion you don't agree with, and make them swear to it. You would object as well.
"If you had to say every morning 'one nation, under Buddha' … 'under David Koresh' ... pick any specific religion you don't agree with ... how would you feel?
"The framers were really smart people. Look around at the world right now … you have problems because you find people combining religion and government."
The federal government, in arguing against Newdow's lawsuit, said that the religious content of "one nation under God" was minimal.
But the appeals court said that an atheist or a holder of certain non-Judeo-Christian beliefs could see it as an endorsement of monotheism.
The 9th Circuit covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state. Those are the only states directly affected by the ruling.
The appeals court said that when President Eisenhower signed the legislation inserting "under God" after the words "one nation," he wrote that "millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."
The court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has said students cannot hold religious invocations at graduations and cannot be compelled to recite the pledge. But when the pledge is recited in a classroom, the appeals court said, a student who objects is confronted with an "unacceptable choice between participating and protesting."
"Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the pledge," the court said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.