Supreme Court Rejects Atheist's Inauguration Prayer Bid

Rejecting an atheist's request, two justices declined on Wednesday to have the Supreme Court step in and bar the saying of a prayer at President Bush's inauguration.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) had first denied Michael Newdow's (search) claim that a prayer at Thursday's ceremony would violate the Constitution by forcing Newdow to accept unwanted religious beliefs. Newdow later filed an appeal with Justice John Paul Stevens (search), who turned it down.

Rehnquist also rejected Newdow's request that the chief justice withdraw from the case because he was to swear in Bush to a second term. Newdow had argued that Rehnquist had become a willing fixture in a government ceremony "infused with sectarian Christian religion" and thus had a conflict of interest.

Rehnquist's order came without comment.

Two lower courts had rejected Newdow's request to ban the prayer, suggesting he couldn't show actual injury in hearing it. In his ruling last week, U.S. District Judge John Bates also said the court did not have authority to stop the president from inviting clergy to give a religious prayer at the ceremony.

Lawyers representing Bush and his inaugural committee said prayers have been widely accepted at inaugurals for more than 200 years and that Bush's decision to have a minister recite the invocation was a personal choice the court had no power to prevent.

Newdow gained attention two years ago when he sought to have "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. A federal appeals court ruled that public schools violated the separation of church and state by having students mention God.

The Supreme Court later threw out the ruling, saying Newdow could not lawfully sue because he did not have custody of his elementary school-age daughter, on whose behalf he sued.