WASHINGTON – Just one day after he stunned the nation by declaring the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, a federal appeals court judge on Thursday blocked his own ruling from being enforced indefinitely.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Justice Department will request a rehearing. "The Justice Department will defend the ability of our nation's children to pledge allegiance to the American flag," he said.
Circuit Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, who wrote the 2-1 opinion that said the phrase "under God" violates the separation of church and state, stayed his ruling until fellow members of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decide whether to reconsider the case. He gave no reason.
The appeals court can rehear the case with the same three judges, or an 11-judge panel. Ashcroft said the Justice Department will request a hearing by an 11-judge panel.
Goodwin's stay has no immediate impact, since the ruling already was on hold under court rules for 45 days to allow for any challenges. Gov. Gray Davis and school officials in Elk Grove, where the plaintiff lives, both promised to appeal.
Vikram Amar, a Hastings College of the Law scholar who closely follows the appeals court, said the latest move means Wednesday's ruling that the pledge is unconstitutional "has no legal force or effect."
"They're acknowledging the likelihood that the whole 9th Circuit may take a look at this," Amar said.
Goodwin stunned people across the political spectrum when he declared that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional because the phrase "one nation under God" amounts to a government endorsement of religion. The words "under God" were inserted by Congress in 1954 after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic organization.
Legal scholars said the ruling -- which could be applied in nine Western states -- would probably be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, if not reversed first by the 9th Circuit.
"I would bet an awful lot on that," said Harvard University scholar Laurence Tribe.
The lawsuit was brought by a California atheist, Michael Newdow, who did not want his second-grade daughter to be forced to listen to the pledge.
In the ruling, Goodwin said leading schoolchildren in a pledge that says the United States is "one nation under God" is as objectionable as asking them to say "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."
President Bush found the ruling "ridiculous," and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., branded it "just nuts."
Other critics warned the decision calls into question the use of "In God We Trust" on the nation's currency, the public singing of patriotic songs like "God Bless America" and even the use of the phrase "So help me God" when judges and presidents are sworn into office.
Legal scholars said the judge's stay order suggested the court had taken note of the outrage -- and that Goodwin wanted to make clear that children, for now, are not barred from reciting the pledge in class.
"I think there was a lot of back-channel pressure on these judges to put a stay on this given the initial public reaction," said Craig Johnson, a constitutional rights attorney in New York. "I think 24 hours after the ruling has been issued, something is going on over there."
University of Southern California political science professor Alison Renteln said: "Maybe they didn't expect so much of an outcry."
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Goodwin's stay "good news" as he announced it to the Senate.
Virtually the entire Senate showed up for a morning prayer Thursday to affirm that the United States is "one nation, under God." A nearly full House gathered moments later to recite the pledge, followed by a sustained standing ovation.
Later, the House approved by a vote of 416-3 a resoultion declaring the ruling "treats any religious reference as inherently evil."
The Senate, which approved its own resolution Wednesday, voted unanimously Thursday for legislation that would reaffirm both the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" as the nation's motto.
In California, the state Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for the Supreme Court to invalidate the ruling.
Newdow, a 49-year-old emergency room physician, said he was not concerned about the stay. He has received threatening calls and said his daughter was in a "safe place."
"It's just people who don't understand," he said. "What if the pledge said 'one nation, under Jesus,' or 'under Buddha?' I regret they don't realize this."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.