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Pledge lawsuit may have narrow ruling

A Sacramento federal judge suggested Monday that he will dismiss parts of atheist Michael Newdow's lawsuit challenging the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance because it ventures into areas where the judge is powerless.

"I have no authority to tell Congress to change the law," U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton told Newdow.

Congress, the lead defendant in Newdow's suit, added "under God" to the pledge in 1954.

Karlton indicated that the suit will be pared to the narrow question of whether it is constitutional to ask children attending classes in Sacramento-area school districts to recite the pledge.

The judge told Terence Cassidy, attorney for the school districts named as defendants, that Cassidy "will have the laboring oar," and not the attorneys for the various governmental entities Newdow sued.

Karlton's statements came as he heard arguments Monday on defense motions to dismiss the renewed effort by Newdow against the phrase.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year reversed Newdow's 2003 victory in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling that he lacked standing to sue.

Newdow doesn't have primary custody of his daughter, whose daily exposure to the pledge in an Elk Grove schoolroom was at the heart of the case.

Therefore, said the justices, he had no right to sue on behalf of his daughter.

The justices did not rule on the merits of Newdow's arguments, and that fact seemed to loom large in Karlton's mind as he listened to Monday's arguments.

This time around, Newdow is joined by eight co-plaintiffs - all custodial parents of children who are students in Northern California public schools or the children themselves.

Once again, the emergency room physician and nonpracticing attorney, whose skill in making his arguments to the high court won praise from veteran practitioners at that level, is the plaintiffs' only attorney.

The 9th Circuit ruled it is an unconstitutional blending of church and state for public school students to pledge to God.

But the attorney representing the school districts argued Monday that the Supreme Court's reversal, while not addressing the merits of Newdow's claim, rendered the 9th Circuit's decision null.

Karlton did not seem nearly as sure as Cassidy that the judge is not still bound by the decision of the 9th Circuit, since it is the court he is directly answerable to and is the highest court to have ruled on the merits. He took the matter under submission and will issue a written ruling later.

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