SAN FRANCISCO — The California schoolgirl whose atheist father successfully sued to have the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional has no problem with reciting the pledge, her mother said Thursday.
“I was concerned that the American public would be led to believe that my daughter is an atheist or that she has been harmed by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words ’one nation under God,”’ said the mother, Sandra Banning, in a statement. “In our home we are practicing Christians and are active in our church.”
Banning, of Elk Grove, has never been married to Michael Newdow, the third-grader’s father, a Sacramento physician and attorney who is representing himself.
It was her first public comment since the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Newdow that the words “under God,” inserted by Congress in 1954, make the pledge an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
The San Francisco court based its June 26 ruling in part on Newdow’s claim that the girl was “injured” by being forced to listen to others recite the pledge at the Elk Grove Unified School District.
Banning, who declined through her attorney to be interviewed, has full custody of the child, which Newdow also is challenging in court.
But Newdow said in an interview Thursday that he also has the right to determine how she’s brought up.
“This is MY issue. I have a right to send my child to a public school without the government inculcating any religious beliefs. I’m saying I’M injured,” he said.
Some legal experts said the mother’s revelation that the girl herself willingly recites the pledge could cast doubts on the legitimacy of the case, giving the court grounds to dismiss it or send it to a lower court to weigh the allegations.
Courts can only hear cases in which there is an injured party, and if there is no injury there is no grounds for a case, said Rory Little, a Hastings College of the Law professor who follows the 9th Circuit.
“The federal courts can’t address anything unless it’s a case of controversy,” Little said. “You have to have injury.”
Legal precedents also allow for cases to be reopened, even at the appellate level, if the legal standing of the plaintiff suddenly becomes an issue.
Banning, who has hired lawyers in part to explore intervening in the case, said she hopes her efforts will lead to a reversal of the appellate ruling.
She said her daughter “expressed sadness” after the ruling.
“Because of her response and the potential impact of this case on her life, I have the responsibility as her mother to speak out, to set the record straight or clear up any misrepresentations,” she said.
Newdow said that taking an 8-year-old to church doesn’t mean the girl is choosing to be religious — and at any rate, it doesn’t matter what the child believes.
“The main thrust of this case is not my daughter, it’s me. A parent of a child has a right to send a child to a public school without the government introducing religious dogma, period.”
Newdow said the girl is also injured, because the pledge interferes with her right to freely express her beliefs “without the government intruding religious beliefs upon her.”
In its opinion, the 9th Circuit panel noted that Newdow asserted his daughter is injured when compelled to “watch and listen as her state-employed teacher in her state-run school leads her classmates in a ritual proclaiming that there is a God.”
The court has put its decision on hold to allow for appeals. Paul Sullivan, the wife’s attorney, planned to file papers saying Newdow misled the judges.