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Judge rejects atheists' 'so help me God' ban

A federal judge in Washington, D.C, dismissed a case yesterday brought by Michael Newdow and the American Humanist Association seeking to ban prayer and the phrase "so help me God" from presidential inaugurations.

Newdow, a California attorney who pushed a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme in an unsuccessful effort to remove the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, previously joined Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and others in an attempt to obtain an injunction barring pastors Rick Warren and Joseph E. Lowery from praying at Barack Obama's inauguration.

As WND reported, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton refused to halt Inauguration Day prayers and rejected Barker and Newdow's requests to stop Chief Justice Roberts from saying "so help me God" at the end of the presidential oath.

In court yesterday, Judge Walton again ruled against Newdow and company in the atheists' attempt to ban prayer and "so help me God" from future inaugurations.

The Pacific Justice Institute, a non-profit legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom, represented pastors Warren and Lowery in the case.

Brad Dacus, president of PJI, told WND, "We are pleased that the court has made it clear that religious expression by individuals at public gatherings and public forums is not a violation of the Constitution."

Dacus continued, "This decision hopefully sends a loud signal to church separationists everywhere that the courts in the United States will not allow for the censorship of religious expression from the public square."

The atheists argue that in inauguration invocations the government is choosing between "believers" and "those who don't believe" and imposing religion on atheists and agnostics.

"We're hoping to stop prayer and religious rituals at governmental functions, especially at the inauguration," Barker told Fox News when the complaint was filed. "The inauguration is not a religious event. It is a secular event of a secular country that includes all Americans, including those of us who are not Christians, including those of us who are not believers."

Rather than having religious figures such as Warren and Lowery delivery the invocation and benediction at his inauguration, Barker suggested Obama host a private religious ceremony.

"Defendants will have an invocation and benediction during the inauguration," the lawsuit states. "Both of these activities are completely exclusionary, showing absolute disrespect to Plaintiffs and others of similar religious views, who explicitly reject the purely religious claims that will be endorsed, i.e., (a) there exists a God, and (b) the United States government should pay homage to that God."

"Those people who do pray do believe in God and they are in fact trying to use the government to pick sides," Barker said. "In America we are free to disagree. We can disagree with Rev. Rick Warren but we're not free to ask our government to settle the argument."

The court's rejection of Newdow's injunction request marked the atheist's third attempt to stop inaugural prayers since 2001. He has lost every case.

"Michael Newdow may have thought the third time was the charm with this lawsuit, but thankfully the court agreed with us, and three strikes means he's out," Pacific Justice Institute President Brad Dacus said in a statement. "The very notion that a federal district judge should order either the Chief Justice or the President-elect's invited clergy what to say or not say is just censorship by another name."

Following this most recent, fourth court loss over inauguration prayers, Newdow's Restore the Pledge website states the decision was "expected" and that plaintiffs have 60 days to file an appeal, implying the case may be sent to a higher court.

Kevin Snider, chief counsel of Pacific Justice Institute, says his organization will be ready.

"We feel a special obligation to defend clergy who are sued for offering prayers at government events at the invitation of public officials," said Snider in a statement. "It has been our privilege to defend these pastors, and we will continue to do so if this decision is appealed."

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