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THE NATION | THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

1 Plaintiff, Against the Grain

June 27, 2002|SCOTT GOLD and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — First things first: Michael A. Newdow says he is not a nut. He's an eccentric, for sure, an emergency room physician by training who says he has given up working to "fight the government," an envelope-pushing free-thinker who equates believing in God with believing in Santa Claus.

But Newdow, a 49-year-old single father who lives on the outskirts of Sacramento, also has an undergraduate degree from Brown University, a medical degree from UCLA and a law degree from the University of Michigan.

He has fought repeatedly in court for a strict separation of church and state. And even foes who find his cause misguided--and all of a sudden, there are many--might find his resolve impressive. He estimates that he spent 4,000 hours preparing his own lawsuit arguing that forcing children to pledge allegiance to "one nation, under God" is unconstitutional and marginalizes those who are not religious.

And so, on Wednesday morning, when he won in a federal court, and the collective jaw of the mainstream legal community dropped, Newdow didn't seem to think anything particularly dramatic had happened.

"I don't think it's a very interesting argument. I think it's an unquestionable argument," Newdow said. "Could we say we are 'One nation under Jesus'? Could we say we are 'One nation under David Koresh'? Or Muhammad? No. And we can't say we are 'one nation under God.' "

His community, to put it mildly, does not agree.

Within hours of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision, the national media descended upon Newdow's two-story, upper-middle-class home, near a crook of the Sacramento River known as "the pocket."

He was quickly forced to buy a second telephone line to his house--primarily to handle the steady influx of obscene messages and death threats that were pouring in.

"You atheist bastard," one woman said on the answering machine. The message was reviewed by a Times reporter.

"If you don't like the way this country is, take yourself and your family and get the hell out," the woman continued. She signed off: "This is from America."

Another woman recited the Pledge of Allegiance on the machine, and a man left this message: "I hope you and your daughter go to hell. People are going to get even. I hope you suffer."

Newdow, standing on the hard-wood floors of his kitchen, amid children's toys and stuffed animals and a blackboard that said "ALGAE" in children's writing, was trying to take it all in stride--even doing the dishes as reporters peppered him with questions. But he was clearly stunned by the response to his legal victory.

"I wasn't prepared," he said, shaking his head. "And I was stupid not to be prepared."

Except for the toys and the writing scrawled on the blackboard, there was no sign of Newdow's 8-year-old daughter, who will wrap up her second-grade year at an area elementary school next week. Newdow declined to discuss his personal life, though he said he is a single father who wants to protect his daughter by keeping her identity a secret.

"I'm fearful for her. I'm worried," he said. "I'll bet there will be something thrown through my window in the next few days."

Newdow acknowledged that he is, in effect, using his daughter to support his cause. He said as far as he knows, she stands to recite the pledge along with her classmates in school.

"This is more about me than her," he said. "I'd like to keep her out of this."

Most of Newdow's neighbors said they don't support Newdow's cause, but support his right to fight for it.

"I see no fault in saying 'In God we trust,' " said Melvin Holland, a house painter who has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years. "To me, it's mind-boggling that he's doing it."

Told about the obscene messages left on Newdow's answering machine, however, Holland shook his head in disgust.

"That's awful," he said. "Everyone has their right to speak their piece."

Newdow, although he said he wanted to keep details of his personal life private, said he was raised in the Bronx, N.Y., and northern New Jersey. He graduated from Brown University before attending the UCLA Medical School. He worked as an emergency room physician, then returned to school and received a law degree from the University of Michigan. University officials confirmed that Newdow graduated from the colleges.

The balding Newdow, who often answers the phone with a chirpy "Yo," said he has always been an atheist, but a Web site advertising his campaign also describes him as "an average guy."

"What brought me to atheism was the same thing that brought me to stop believing that there was a Santa Claus," he said.

He was always uncomfortable when asked, along with the rest of the kids, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school, he said. In some public school classes, he was also forced to pray.

"I remember it bothered me," he said. "I remember wondering why I had to do that."

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