To avoid "potential harm" to eight people who have joined avowed atheist Michael Newdow in a quest to strike "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, a federal judge agreed Tuesday to allow them to remain anonymous during what is sure to be a closely watched legal fight over the highly charged issue.
Newdow, who filed the lawsuit using pseudonyms for all the plaintiffs except himself, proposed in a motion to keep anonymous the names of the parents and students in Sacramento County and San Joaquin County school districts.
Attorneys for the defendants - Congress, the federal government, California, and five school districts in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties and a top official from each district - ratified the proposal in a written agreement.
"It is believed that disclosure of the actual and true names of either the children or their parents will subject the minor children (and their parents) to potential harm," Newdow wrote in his motion.
The written agreement, approved by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton, decrees that the true identities of the four adults and four children "will be protected from disclosure" and "will be deemed 'confidential information.'"
Craig Blackwell, a senior trial counsel with the U.S. Department of Justice who represents the federal defendants, declined to oppose the motion because of the contents of a sworn statement by Newdow attached to the complaint and "certain allegations" in the complaint.
The identities of the plaintiffs will be available to defense attorneys "for the purpose of obtaining information necessary to defend the case," the agreement provides.
The names also will be available to Karlton "or any other officer who presides over any proceeding in the case, and to court reporters as necessary."
Papers that contain the true names may be used in court "if the documents are filed under seal."
Newdow initially submitted a motion to Karlton asking that his co-plaintiffs be allowed to proceed anonymously and never have to personally appear in court. The motion sought to have them testify through depositions under their pseudonyms should the need for their testimony arise.
The agreement approved Tuesday sidestepped the matter of testimony, saying only, "That issue will be discussed by the parties at a later date."
This is Newdow's second time around trying to get the phrase out of the pledge, and he says he wants his fellow plaintiffs spared the harassment and abuse he has already encountered.
In the earlier case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals touched off a national furor when it sided with Newdow, but his victory was short-lived. The U.S. Supreme Court found Newdow, the lone plaintiff, lacked standing to sue because he is not the primary custodian of his daughter.
Her daily exposure to the pledge in an Elk Grove public schoolroom was at the heart of that case.
To rid himself of that problem in the new case, filed in January, Newdow enlisted four custodial parents of students in Sacramento County and San Joaquin County school districts, as well as the students themselves, to serve as co-plaintiffs.
Newdow, an emergency room physician and nonpracticing lawyer, is acting as the only attorney for the plaintiffs.
Attached to the motion are the affidavits of a parent and three students, none of whom are involved in the litigation but who were either physically attacked or ostracized and ridiculed because of stands they took against religion in the classroom.
In the declaration attached to the complaint, Newdow describes the abusive reactions to his first lawsuit:
"I was repeatedly told that I should leave the country.
"Strangers left messages on my answering machine, calling me, among other things, ... a 'sick son of a bitch,' an 'imbecilic bastard,' a 'traitor,' a 'stupid whore,' ...
"Strangers also at times identified me in public. I was referred to as 'the freak' in public, when I was with my child."
He also recounted in the declaration that on March 26, 2004 - two days after oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the first case - a talk he was invited to make at the University of Toledo was delayed by a bomb threat.
In the second complaint, Newdow alleges one of the unnamed plaintiffs "has suffered harassment by other students" because of the child's refusal to recite the pledge.
Another of the plaintiffs "has been singled out and castigated" by a teacher for not reciting the pledge, "and has even been forced into a different seat because of (an) unwillingness to compromise religious principles."
A third unnamed plaintiff "recites the pledge, but leaves out the words 'under God.'" Because of that, the child "has been singled out and ostracized by other students" and "now attends school fearful of ridicule and other social consequences."
Blackwell wrote in his brief that the allegations, "if true, could support a need for anonymity. Defendants assume the good faith of these allegations, and that plaintiffs could, if necessary, support these allegations with declarations."
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