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Appeals Court Stays Enforcement of Its Pledge Ruling

A federal appeals court on Tuesday put on hold its ruling barring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public classrooms, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The order followed a request by the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento. The daughter of the man whose suit led the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to find the pledge unconstitutional attends school there.

Without Tuesday's stay, public schools in nine western states would have been banned -- beginning next Monday -- from reciting the pledge, with its reference to "under God." Those states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The stay gives the school district 90 days to ask the Supreme Court to review the appeals court's ruling. Elk Grove Superintendent Dave Gordon said the district will ask the court to hear the case by the end of April.

A Justice Department spokesman said the government had no comment on Tuesday's order, and said the Bush administration was still considering whether it would also appeal.

In June and again last Friday, the San Francisco-based appeals court ruled that the pledge is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion when recited in public schools.

The Elk Grove district was the target of a lawsuit filed by Michael Newdow, a Sacramento atheist, who alleged that his daughter shouldn't be forced to take part in reciting the pledge.

In a case that bitterly divided the nation and the federal judiciary, the appeals court ruled in Newdow's favor. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said the Justice Department would "spare no effort to preserve the rights of all our citizens to pledge their allegiance to the American flag."

Newdow said he did not object to Tuesday's order. "I'll let it play itself out," he said. "There's no question I am going to win."

California law requires schools to conduct a patriotic observance at the beginning of each school day. Elk Grove officials had said they would have students sing the national anthem instead of the pledge if the appeals court did not delay its ruling.

Tuesday's ruling was "very good news, because we want to see the matter heard before the Supreme Court, and we want our children to keep saying the pledge as written until such time as the Supreme Court rules," Gordon said.

The high court is almost certain to take the case to resolve the conflict among the circuit courts of appeal, experts said. The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a similar challenge, ruled in 1992 that reciting the pledge in public schools was not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

"You've got a split in the circuits, and it's a high-profile case," said Vikram Amar, a Hastings College of the Law scholar.

Ruling in similar cases, the Supreme Court has barred sectarian prayers in public school graduation speeches and said schools could not punish students for refusing to recite the pledge. But the high court has allowed state legislatures to open their sessions with prayers.