WASHINGTON – "One nation, under God," will remain, at least temporarily, in the Pledge of Allegiance (search), the Supreme Court ruled Monday, saying a California atheist could not challenge the patriotic oath.
But whether or not the pledge recited by generations of American schoolchildren is an unconstitutional blending of church and state was not directly addressed at the procedural ruling.
The court said the atheist could not sue to ban the pledge from his daughter's school and others because he did not have legal authority to speak for her.
The father, Michael Newdow (search), is in a protracted custody fight with the girl's mother. He does not have sufficient custody of the child to qualify as her legal representative, eight members of the court said. Justice Antonin Scalia (search) did not participate in the case.
"When hard questions of domestic relations are sure to affect the outcome, the prudent course is for the federal court to stay its hand rather than reach out to resolve a weighty question of federal constitutional law," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist agreed with the outcome of the case, but still wrote separately to say that the Pledge as recited by schoolchildren does not violate the Constitution. Justices Sandra Day O'Connor (search) and Clarence Thomas agreed with him.
The high court's lengthy opinion overturns a ruling two years ago that the teacher-led pledge was unconstitutional in public schools. That appeals court decision set off a national uproar and would have stripped the reference to God from the version of the pledge said by about 9.6 million schoolchildren in California and other western states.
The case involved Newdow's grade school daughter, who like most elementary school children, hears the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily.
The First Amendment (search) guarantees that government will not "establish" religion, wording that has come to mean a general ban on overt government sponsorship of religion in public schools and elsewhere.
The Supreme Court has already said that schoolchildren cannot be required to recite the oath that begins, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America."
The court has also repeatedly barred school-sponsored prayer from classrooms, playing fields and school ceremonies.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the language of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court's precedents make clear that tax-supported schools cannot lend their imprimatur to a declaration of fealty of "one nation under God."
The Bush administration, the girl's school and Newdow all asked the Supreme Court to get involved in the case.
The administration had asked the high court to rule against Newdow, either on the legal question of his ability to sue or on the constitutional issue. The administration argued that the reference to God in the pledge is more about ceremony and history than about religion.
The reference is an "official acknowledgment of our nation's religious heritage," similar to the "In God We Trust" stamped on coins and bills, Solicitor General Theodore Olson (search) argued to the court.
It is far-fetched to say such references pose a real danger of imposing state-sponsored religion, Olson said.
Newdow claims a judge recently gave him joint custody of the girl, whose name is not part of the legal papers filed with the Supreme Court.
The child's mother, Sandra Banning, told the court she has no objection to the pledge. The full extent of the problems with the case was not apparent until she filed papers at the high court, Stevens wrote Monday.
Newdow holds medical and legal degrees, and says he is an ordained minister. He argued his own case at the court in March.
The case began when Newdow sued Congress, President Bush and others to eliminate the words "under God." He asked for no damages.
The phrase "under God" was not part of the original pledge adopted by Congress as a patriotic tribute in 1942, at the height of World War II. Congress inserted the phrase more than a decade later, in 1954, when the world had moved from hot war to cold.
Supporters of the new wording said it would set the United States apart from godless communism.
The case is Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 02-1624.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.