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An Irreverent Look at Law and Politics

The man whose lawsuit struck 'under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance gives his musical take on the Constitution and personal pronouns.

October 14, 2002|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

Any thoughts that the guy whose lawsuit struck "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance would take himself too seriously Sunday ended the moment he strapped on his guitar, hooked up his harmonica and sang his own blues composition to a surprised audience.

"It's freedom of religion, as long as it's God you choose,

"They had those Pledge-of-Allegiance-needs-some-old-time-religion blues."

It was the first of five original songs Michael Newdow sang to 120 people gathered at the Center for Inquiry-West Los Angeles, whose members generally espouse atheism and do not believe in the supernatural.

His appearance was part history lesson and part constitutional law lecture, with a hootenanny and a sing-along thrown in -- the world according to Newdow.

Last June, the Sacramento emergency-room doctor became one of the most pilloried people in America after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with him that the phrase "under God" violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

Ninety-nine U.S. senators stood on the Capitol steps to denounce the decision. Children by the thousands defied the ruling and pledged allegiance under God.

And the ruling was fodder for weeks on the talk-show circuit, all of which led Newdow to another song in which he pretends he's a cynical politician wrapping himself in religion.

"It doesn't matter as long as I end it with 'God bless,' " Newdow sang.

The case that brought him infamy has been appealed. The Justice Department is arguing as part of its brief that Newdow did not have the standing to bring the case on behalf of his 8-year-old daughter because he does not have custody of her.

But the audience Sunday was full of supporters who greeted Newdow with a standing ovation. One member gave him a T-shirt with the U.S. flag and "Atheists Love America, Too," printed on it.

Eddie Tabash, a lawyer who is the center's chairman, introduced Newdow as "perhaps the most important atheist in the world today."

Newdow, 49, is also a lawyer who was raised Jewish. He is of medium height, balding, and his brown hair is fading to gray. He dressed casually, in faded blue jeans and a heavy green shirt.

His lawsuit days are far from over, he told the group.

He has filed one suit to ban chaplains at presidential inaugurations and another saying it is unconstitutional for chaplains to lead the prayers of state legislatures.

He is also on a quest to introduce gender-neutral pronouns into the language, when appropriate. Instead of he or she, he has invented the word "ree," and instead of him or her, he offers "hurm."

So perhaps it was appropriate that among those attending Newdow's speech was comic Julia Sweeney, best known for her "Saturday Night Live" character of unknown gender, Pat.

She bought his two CDs -- one of children's songs and the other similar to those he sang Sunday -- and asked Newdow to autograph them.

She's now a fan, someone she can relate to especially as she fine-tunes her latest monologue, which she may call "My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story."

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