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Furor hits home for Pocket dad who filed suit

He's a 49-year-old dad who drives a Ford, lives in a modest two-story house and spent Wednesday morning emptying his dishwasher and taking out the trash.

But by the afternoon, Pocket resident Dr. Michael Newdow was at the center of a storm of controversy over God, the classroom and American values.

"I was stupid," said Newdow, barefoot and dressed in denim shorts and a T-shirt as a small army of reporters set up shop in his kitchen. "I knew there would be controversy throughout the country. I just never thought it would revolve around me."

Newdow, a soft-spoken emergency-room physician who got a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1988, said he learned shortly before noon Wednesday that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had agreed with him that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school was unconstitutional when containing the words "under God."

Two hours later he was fielding phone calls from CBS News headquarters in New York and making commitments to be awake by 4 a.m. this morning for interviews with Katie Couric.

Sitting in a white plastic chair in his back yard, Newdow said he's already been peppered with threats but is resolved to keep up the fight on his own.

"I've done OK this far," he said.

Newdow said he does not believe in God but he believes very strongly in the U.S. Constitution. Contrary to the First Amendment, he said, God and religion are ingrained in American government.

His goal is to scrub them away.

"My main concern is that government is throwing religion at the kids," said Newdow, who filed his suit on behalf of his daughter, who is now 8 years old. He refused to discuss his daughter and her reaction to the case Wednesday, saying only that she is away from home and safe.

He said his one-man crusade to toss the pledge from the classroom began in 1997 in a Chicago market where he was waiting in line to buy soap.

"I remember it very clearly," Newdow, who was visiting friends at the time. "I was looking at the change in my hand and I saw that every coin said, 'In God We Trust.' I decided I was going to try to change that."

Newdow was living in Florida at the time and his original lawsuit, filed in Broward County in 1998, was an effort to remove references to God on U.S. currency. He later amended the suit to tackle the pledge issue, arguing that "under God" -- which Congress added to the pledge in 1954 -- should be taken out.

Newdow moved to the Sacramento area later that year and filed a similar suit against the Elk Grove Unified School District where his daughter, who recently completed second grade, was enrolled.

He lost the case, which the federal appeals court has now remanded for trial.

A member of Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Newdow said he's been an atheist for as long as he remembers.

Growing up, his father didn't believe in God. His mother did, but religion was never a big part of his life.

"I don't believe in things I can't see," he said. "I don't believe in Santa Claus either."

He said he usually keeps his views on God and religion to himself. When he has shared his beliefs, he said, they've often led to arguments and outrage.

Once on a plane trip, Newdow started chatting with the woman seated next to him. The conversation had been amiable for 30 minutes, he said, when he mentioned he was an atheist.

"She literally got up and walked to another part of the plane," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

Following Wednesday's court ruling, Newdow won't have far to look for similar reactions.

"I feel sorry for his daughter, actually," said Marta Carrera, who lives two houses down from Newdow and who tells her children to avoid their neighbor. "He's doing her a disservice, in my opinion."

Carrera, who has a 17-year-old daughter in Catholic school and a 6-year-old son in public school, said that faith in American society -- including the classroom -- is needed more than ever following Sept. 11.

"Especially now, we need our children to believe in God and believe in our government," she said. "If we don't have our faith, what do we have?"

Newdow said he expects that many people will call his campaign un-American.

"I try to explain to them that it's very American," he said. "This is what the founders of this country wanted. It's the way it should be."

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The Bee's Matthew Barrows can be reached at (916) 321-1008 or .