NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–One of America’s foremost atheists debated one of the nation’s top Christian lawyers Feb. 4, when Michael Newdow and Jay Sekulow discussed church-state matters on a nationwide radio program.
Newdow is the California lawyer who is trying to strip the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance; Sekulow is chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a pro-family legal organization.
The two men sparred during a broadcast of “Jay Sekulow Live!”
“You’re creating a lot of work for us,” Sekulow said jokingly at one point, referring to the many legal briefs the ACLJ files to counter Newdow’s lawsuits.
The discussion was cordial for the entire 30-minute program, which saw the men surprisingly agree on an issue or two. But most of the time, they were at odds.
“[I]f you look at the history of this country, it is replete with references to religion and prayer being invoked, including at events like inaugural ceremonies,” Sekulow said. “… President Washington — in his inaugural address — himself talked about divine providence and God’s blessing.”
Newdow and Sekulow have been on opposite sides of legal battles within the past year. Last year Newdow lost, on technical grounds, his pledge case at the U.S. Supreme Court. As recently as January, he lost in a bid to have President Bush’s inauguration stripped of prayer.
“He’s not there as George Bush, individual citizen,” Newdow said. “… If he wants to before the inauguration go to church — when he did — he has every right to do that. If he wants to get his friends to worship Jesus, he has every right to do that.
“But he’s standing on the steps of the capitol, on a podium … taking his oath of office under the Constitution of the United States. [In that instance] he’s not George Bush individual. He’s the president of the United States — he’s a third of the government. And just like Congress can’t endorse a religious belief, he can’t endorse a religious belief.”
Said Sekulow: “We’ve got a fundamental disagreement on this issue, obviously, because I think government acknowledging the religious heritage of this country is appropriate. It’s constitutional.”
The two men even disagreed as to whether George Washington added the phrase “so help me God” to the oath off office when sworn in.
“It turns out, that … at least in my research, nobody has been able to verify that George Washington said, ‘so help me God,'” Newdow said. “I’m already up to James Monroe, and nobody has ever been able to say that any of those presidents have ever said, ‘so help me God.'”
Sekulow countered: “I’ve got some history books I’ll show you that will help.”
According to the Library of Congress, Sekulow was right. The library’s website says that Washington added the phrase “so help me God,” and other presidents — including Bush — have done so, too.
Newdow was asked at the beginning of the program to explain his philosophy of the relationship between church and state.
“We have an equal protection clause, and we should treat everybody equally,” he said. “Government should not take sides in race and gender or in religion.”
Said Sekulow: “My view, which contrasts with this, is that religion and religious expression should be encouraged and allowed and that government simply allowing it is not … a separation of church and state problem. The government can accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of its people without endorsing them.”
Individual citizens, Newdow said, “have every right” to “do anything” they wish regarding religion.
“If they want to stand and in the middle of the Pledge of Allegiance say, ‘Under God, Jesus Christ is Lord’ or anything else they want, they have every right to do that,” he said. “What they don’t have the right to do, however, is to use the machinery of the state — my state as well as their state — to advocate for their particular religious position.”
Sekulow then asked: “Does that mean, then, that the state should not even acknowledge the statements … from Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial, or the statements in the Declaration of Independence about reliance upon Divine providence?”
“They certainly can acknowledge,” Newdow answered. “It says in the Declaration of Independence four times, it refers to a creator, divine providence, etc. They have every right — that’s historical, it’s there. You can acknowledge anything you want. [But] you cannot endorse.”
Having the government place “under God” in the pledge “is an acknowledgment of God, which simultaneously is an endorsement of the idea that God exists,” Newdow added.
Newdow said he has no problem with the annual See You at the Pole event, in which students gather before school — many times at a flagpole — to pray and worship.
“If anyone [is allowed to] meet there, they can meet there,” he said.
Newdow has re-filed his Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit at the trial court level in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He said he plans on filing a similar lawsuit in every circuit court nationwide — which could result in conflicting opinions if the Ninth Circuit once again strikes down the pledge and other circuits uphold it.
Newdow has a law degree but also practices medicine. He works in an emergency room.
One caller to the program confronted Newdow about his atheism, saying she had a brother who was an atheist but became a Christian after working in a trauma unit.
“I wonder how you can watch the intricacies of the human body and the healing and not know there is a God” she said.
“We see things differently,” Newdow said. “I understand you see that as clear evidence that there is a God. I don’t…. And that’s what we need to respect and let our government respect.”