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Ex-Partner of Plaintiff on Pledge Goes Public

Courts: A defense fund is established to protect the reputations of the woman and her child.

July 12, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The anonymous 8-year-old girl in the shadow of last month's court ruling on the Pledge of Allegiance was pulled deeper into the tug-of-war over God and politics Thursday when a Washington law firm set up a fund to defend her and her mother's reputations.

In a lawsuit filed by the child's father on her behalf, a panel of judges ruled that the phrase "under God" is an improper reference to religion. But the second-grader is a churchgoing Christian, not an atheist, the law firm said, and is a tool of her father Michael Newdow's campaign to maintain a strict division between government and religion.

The girl and her mother, Sandra Banning--Newdow's former partner--"believe that America is in fact 'one nation under God,' " said their attorney, Paul E. Sullivan, who plans no legal action but will represent his clients' interests in the continuing debate. "It is important that the child is not unjustly linked in the public's mind or in official court records to this case or the negative attention it has received."

Sullivan's firm, Foley & Lardner, did not say how the girl's reputation has been harmed by her connection to the case. Both Newdow and the Elk Grove School District where she is a student have taken pains to protect her identity.

Newdow, a lawyer and former emergency room physician, has acknowledged from the beginning that the girl says the pledge each morning with her classmates. Newdow has said he does not press his religious beliefs on her and that the case has always been about him, not her.

When the media descended on his house after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling, Newdow removed the girl's photographs from his refrigerator and walls so her face would not appear in news accounts.

He predicted long ago that much of the nation would find his beliefs radical. And, to spare her the notoriety, he intentionally left his daughter's name off the documents he filed in court as part of his case so that she could not be identified.

"I have consistently refused to discuss her (except to state that she is an absolutely super kid and that she got all 'excellents' on her last report card)," Newdow wrote in an e-mail Thursday morning.

"I continue to maintain--as I have from the beginning--that the [Constitution] protects my right, as a parent, to send my daughter to public school without her being indoctrinated with any particular religious belief, even one with which we might agree.

"That is the thrust of this case as it pertains to my child, and it does not require any further involvement on her part."

Foley & Lardner, which has a staff of nearly 1,000 attorneys in 16 markets, has long-standing ties to conservative politics. Sullivan, for example, has provided legal assistance in the past to former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator and conservative icon. Foley & Lardner was loosely affiliated with President Bush's campaign during the recount of the 2000 election.

Sullivan said attorneys from the firm were already working the phones to solicit donations to Banning's legal defense fund--and were hoping that members of Congress would be first in line. He said solicitations would go out to people of every stripe, and he declined to discuss his politics in an interview Thursday, saying that he hopes to keep this issue removed from the political arena.

Some observers said the firm's links to conservative groups are evidence that Republicans are trying to seize the Pledge of Allegiance issue as their own.

Until now, reaction to the 9th Circuit's ruling--which was stayed the next day and which most analysts believe will be reversed--has been bipartisan. The Senate voted 99-0 to condemn the ruling. Democrats such as Sen. John Edwards were "just as quick" to condemn the decision as Republicans such as Sen. Trent Lott, said Steve Benen, spokesman for the Washington-based nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In recent weeks, there have been suggestions that Republicans hope to make the Pledge of Allegiance "their" issue. GOP strategist Ralph Reed and talk radio commentator Rush Limbaugh have said the decision will mobilize the Republican base.

"There is a concerted effort to exploit this controversy for political gain," said Benen, whose organization supported the 9th Circuit's ruling but is not formally involved in the case. "It does not surprise me. But it is nevertheless disappointing."

Newdow and Banning never married. Newdow says they remained best friends even after splitting up, until a family law court drove a wedge between them.

They share custody of their daughter. When Banning has her for the weekend, the girl attends church and Sunday school. When it is Newdow's turn for a weekend, she does not attend church, he said.

Despite the criticism, Sullivan said he and others are not trying to politicize the debate.

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