Elk Grove United School District v. Newdow

PETITIONER:Elk Grove Unified School District and David W. Gordon, Superintendent
RESPONDENT:Michael A. Newdow, et al.
LOCATION:Elk Grove Unified School District

DOCKET NO.: 02-1624
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 542 US 1 (2004)
GRANTED: Oct 14, 2003
ARGUED: Mar 24, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 14, 2004

Michael A. Newdow – argued the cause pro se
Terence J. Cassidy – argued the cause for Petitioners
Theodore B. Olson – argued the cause for Respondent United States, in support of petitioners

Facts of the case

Michael Newdow’s daughter attended public school in the Elk Grove Unified School District in California. Elk Grove teachers began school days by leading students in a voluntary recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words “under God” added by a 1954 Congressional act. Newdow sued in federal district court in California, arguing that making students listen – even if they choose not to participate – to the words “under God” violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The district court dismissed Newdow’s complaint for lack of standing, because he and the mother of his daughter are divorced and he does not have custody. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Newdow did have standing “to challenge a practice that interferes with his right to direct the religious education of his daughter.” The Ninth Circuit ruled that Congress’s 1954 act adding the words “under God” to the Pledge and the school district policy requiring it be recited both violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.


Does Michael Newdow have standing to challenge as unconstitutional a public school district policy that requires teachers to lead willing students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? Does a public school district policy that requires teachers to lead willing students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the words “under God,” violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Media for Elk Grove United School District v. Newdow

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 24, 2004 in Elk Grove United School District v. Newdow

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 14, 2004 in Elk Grove United School District v. Newdow

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 02-1624, Elk Grove Unified School District versus Newdow will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

This case comes to us from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Each day elementary school teachers in the Elk Grove Unified School District lead their classes in a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Respondent, Michael A. Newdow, is an atheist whose daughter participates in that daily exercise.

The text of the pledge, as Congress amended it exactly 50 years ago today on Flag Day 1954, contains the words “under God”.

For that reason, Newdow contends that the School District is engaged in unconstitutional religious indoctrination of his child.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals agreed with Newdow.

In light of the obvious importance of that decision, we granted the School District’s petition for certiorari to review the First Amendment issue and preliminarily the question whether Newdow has standing to invoke the jurisdiction of the Federal Court.

The very purpose of the National Flag is to serve as the symbol of our country and of its proud traditions, of freedom, of equal opportunity, of religious tolerance, and of goodwill for other people who share our aspirations.

The Pledge of Allegiance evolved as a common public acknowledgment of those ideals.

Its recitation is a patriotic exercise that fosters national unity and also satisfies a California statutory requirement that every public school begin each day with an appropriate patriotic exercise.

After the Court of Appeals issued its initial decision invalidating the District’s pledge policy, Sandra Banning, the mother of Newdow’s daughter, filed a motion for leave to intervene.

She declared that although she and Newdow share physical custody of their daughter, a State Court order, and actually two or three order, granted her exclusive legal custody of the child including the sole right to represent the daughter’s legal interest and make all decisions about her education and welfare.

Banning further stated that her daughter is a Christian who believes in God and has no objection to reciting the pledge or to hear others recite it or to its reference to God.

Banning expressed the belief that her daughter would be harmed if the litigation were permitted to proceed.

In response to Banning’s motion, the Court of Appeals held that they could no longer sue on the child’s behalf as her best friend but that he did have standing to sue to vindicate his own personal interest, specifically his interest in inculcating his child with his views about religion.

Our standing requirement enforces both constitutional and prudential limits on the powers of the unelected members of the federal judiciary.

Our standing jurisprudence contains two strands: the jurisdictional article three standing which enforces the constitution’s case or controversy requirement, and prudential standing which embodies judicially self-imposed limits on the exercise of federal jurisdiction.

One of the principal areas in which this Court has exercised judicial restraint is in the realm of domestic relations.

Long ago, we observed that the whole subject of the domestic relations of husband and wife, parent and child, belonged to the laws of the States and not to the laws of the United States.

The case before us today concerns not merely Newdow’s interest in educating his child and teaching her about religious matters, but also that sometimes conflicting interests of the child’s mother and of greater importance, the interest of a young child who finds herself at the center of a highly public debate involving the differing views of her parents, the validity of a national ritual, and the meanign of our Constitution.

The case is unique because Newdow’s standing derives entirely from his relationship with his daughter but he lacks the right to litigate as her next friend.

In marked contrast to our normal third party standing cases, the interest of this parent and this child, instead of being parallel, are potentially in conflict.

For reasons stated at a greater length in an opinion filed with the Clerk, we conclude that having been deprived under California law of the right to sue as his daughter’s next friend, Newdow lacks prudential standing to bring this suit in Federal Court.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

The Chief Justice has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice O’Connor has joined and in which Justice Thomas has joined as to part 1; Justice O’Connor and Justice Thomas also have filed opinions concurring in the judgment.

Each of the three concurring opinions concludes that Newdow does have standing and that the pledge policy is constitutional.

Justice Scalia took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.