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Atheist loses bid to halt Bush's faith references

A Sacramento atheist's legal attempt to make President Bush stop mixing politics and his Christian faith has been tossed out of federal court.

U. S. Magistrate Judge Gregory G. Hollows recommended in March that the lawsuit be dismissed, finding that the courts have no authority to restrain a president from acting in a particular fashion.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton adopted the finding and recommendation this week.

Dr. Michael A. Newdow, an emergency room physician with a law degree who is acting as his own attorney, could not be reached for comment Friday. However, he vowed last year to appeal a related ruling.

He built his lawsuit against Bush around a prayer delivered at the 2000 inauguration by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, that was based on Christian beliefs and referenced "the Lord Jesus Christ."

Newdow, 49, complained that permitting any prayer at a presidential inauguration violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.

And, he said, Graham's references to Christian figures and concepts "further excluded theistic non-Christians" and "showed a preference for a particular religious belief." The prayer made him feel like an "outsider," he added.

He did not seek monetary damages but asked the court to enjoin Bush from drawing Christianity into his duties in the future.

Initially, Hollows found that prayers at inaugurals are historical, commonplace and not constitutionally offensive. At the magistrate's recommendation, Karlton dismissed that part of the complaint.

However, Hollows and Karlton reserved judgment on the prayer-specific issue until both sides could fully brief it.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Sudhoff Door argued that courts lack authority to meddle in the internal affairs of other government branches.

She cited an 1866 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that neither the legislative nor executive branches can be restrained by the judicial branch.

The magistrate agreed with Door. Moreover, he said, Newdow lacks standing "because of the speculative and impractical nature of the relief sought."

It is impossible to foresee the identity of future inaugural speakers and the nature of their remarks, Hollows noted.

In a last-ditch effort to salvage the suit, Newdow sought to add as a defendant Sen. Mitch McConnell, chairman of the congressional committee in charge of the 2000 inaugural. At a hearing before the magistrate, Newdow suggested the committee could be ordered to ban clergy from the guest list or not let them speak.

Hollows nixed that idea as "clearly an invalid order from a First Amendment standpoint."


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The Bee's Denny Walsh can be reached at (916) 321-1189 or dwalsh@sacbee.com .

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