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Dad regards pledge case as his 'duty'

Of all the names he's been called in the past few weeks -- and there have been plenty -- Mike Newdow can't quite understand how someone could call him a bad father. Or a traitor.

Newdow is the Sacramento man who challenged the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance -- and won.

On July 3, while most people were contemplating the long holiday weekend ahead, Newdow drove from his Pocket-area home to the federal courthouse downtown to do what he described as his patriotic duty and his "duty as a father." He filed an appeal against God in another case.

Specifically, Newdow handed paperwork and a $105 processing fee to a court clerk to appeal the dismissal in May of his lawsuit seeking to bar references to God at presidential inaugurations.

That case, Newdow vs. Bush, is one of three First Amendment-related lawsuits he has in the courts, including the Pledge of Allegiance suit in which he claimed the phrase "under God" violates the Constitution's separation of church and state. On June 26, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed -- at least temporarily -- and ruled the pledge unconstitutional.

That decision seemed to surprise everyone but Newdow, who had installed an extra phone line in his home a month earlier to handle the expected deluge of calls. It also turned him into the country's best-known atheist.

Since the ruling, Newdow has made the media rounds. He's given about a dozen print interviews, chatted on TV morning shows and listened to irate callers call him names on talk radio. He's tangled with the hosts of "Crossfire," and explained his views to Connie Chung. It hasn't been easy -- his views are not popular. Bill O'Reilly of Fox TV said Newdow "may be the most despised man in America."

Through it all, Newdow has remained calm and focused. Because there's another case, another area of law, that matters more to him, he says. And it may be the reason he is so passionate -- some would say obsessive -- about his cause. Newdow vs. Banning pits the fervent atheist against the Christian mother of his 8-year-old daughter.

For three years, Newdow has been engaged in a custody dispute with Sandra L. Banning of Elk Grove. Newdow and Banning never married, but they had a little girl Newdow describes as "the most incredible, wonderful child you can imagine."

Newdow shares custody of his daughter but says he gets far below his goal of equal time and is "punished" for being more financially successful than Banning.

He has harsh words for the family court system. "These so-called experts have no more proven ability to determine what's in the best interest of the child than anyone else off the street," said Newdow, pacing the kitchen of his Pocket-area home.

The two-story house is littered with toys and educational tools. A globe is in the family room, a blackboard in the kitchen. But there is no child in the four-bedroom home. Newdow says he has seen his daughter only once -- at a back-to-school night for parents last week -- in the three weeks since the 9th Circuit's ruling.

He longs to see her more. All he wants, he repeats, is equal time.

Banning declined to comment, referring calls to her attorney, Paul Sullivan of Washington, D.C., who did not return repeated phone calls.

Banning released her first public comments Thursday, stating that her daughter is a Christian who "expressed sadness" over the court's decision. Banning also said she had hired Foley & Lardner, a high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm that in the past has supported conservative political causes. And she established a pledge defense fund to cover her legal costs.

Is the battle over the First Amendment -- the battle of high-profile lawsuits and press statements -- at its heart a battle over an 8-year-old child?

Newdow doesn't see it that way. "I don't think so. No, they're completely separate issues," he says. "People who say that don't know what they're talking about."

Newdow is an emergency-room physician with a law degree, but he says he made only $15,000 last year. Although he works a couple of days a month at the UCLA Medical Center, he says he lives mostly off his savings while spending most of his time, money and energy exploring family law issues and fighting for more time with his daughter.

"I worked my butt off for years and I'm being penalized for it," Newdow said. He is furious that, in addition to $24,000 a year in child support, he has to pay Banning's legal fees when they end up in court because he has more money. "Every time, it costs me $500," he said. "It's ridiculous."

He recently filed a lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional to force an individual to pay opposing attorneys' legal fees based solely on wealth. "My first family law case," said Newdow, who is acting as his own attorney.

His chances of overturning laws regarding legal fees are "about zero," a family law expert said.

"It's his right to try, but those provisions have been in place for many, many years," said John Meyrs, a professor at McGeorge School of Law who said he had not read Newdow's legal briefs.

"I don't see how he'd stand a chance," Meyrs said.

While the First Amendment cases are important to him, what Newdow really wants to do is change family law. And if there's any phrase that bothers him more than "one nation, under God," it's "in the best interest of the child."

"How can a judge who has never met my daughter and who doesn't know anything about her decide what is in her best interest?" Newdow said.

He knows his views about the family court system are not shared by everyone but says he doesn't care.

"People are so easily threatened," said Newdow, who has received several death threats since the pledge ruling. The Sacramento Police Department has provided him with a "panic button" to summon help, he says.

Newdow, 49, grew up in New Jersey. His parents are nonbelievers who never went to church, and Newdow said he was always skeptical about what he learned in the Bible.

But he's always been a fervent believer in education. He graduated from Brown University, the University of Michigan Law School and UCLA Medical School and is finishing a master's degree in public health.

Newdow is also the founding minister of the First Amendment Church of True Science, or FACTS. He constantly challenges others on data, something he admits has not made him popular.

"I don't see why people are offended when I ask them what data they have to back something up," he said. "I'm a doctor; it's what I believe in."

Longtime friends say recent criticism of Newdow is unfair. Judith Rubin has known Newdow for nearly 30 years.

"He may have a different slant on things, but he's brilliant and honest," said Rubin, a staff attorney for a Los Angeles County child-support services agency. "He's not going to take the easy road if it's something he doesn't believe in."

Rubin joined Newdow and his daughter when he presented oral arguments about the Pledge of Allegiance to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Newdow took his daughter for the experience but says she doesn't have to share his beliefs. "She may grow up to be a Christian and be ashamed of me. ... Or she may grow up to be an atheist and be proud of me," he said. "Who knows?"

Newdow loves to talk about his daughter -- "She got all E's (for excellent) last year," he tells people, proudly -- but is cautious when discussing her. He doesn't want her to feel like she has to choose between her parents.

Newdow says he and Banning try to keep their differences away from the child. After all, he says, they were once good friends and had a daughter together.

Newdow followed Banning when she moved here with their daughter from Florida three years ago. In Florida, he filed his first challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance, but it was thrown out when the court determined Newdow did not have legal standing.

Some people have speculated that may happen again. Banning's claim that their daughter is a Christian who may not have objected to using the words "under God" in the pledge have made some wonder if Newdow had the right to sue. According to media reports, Newdow said his daughter was "injured" by the pledge. Courts can only hear cases where there has been an injured party, legal experts say.

"I never said that, and I don't believe it's in the brief," Newdow said.

The court ruling currently is on hold. But Newdow has plenty to keep him busy. His three First Amendment cases -- the one challenging prayer at presidential inaugurations, the pledge case and one challenging Congress' ability to pass resolutions that he claims endorse religion -- take only a small part of his time.

"I spend most of my time trying to see my daughter," he said. "People can call me anything they want, but I'm not a bad father."


About the Writer

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The Bee's Jennifer Garza can be reached at (916) 321-1033 or jgarza@sacbee.com .

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