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Girl never objected to pledge, mom says

The 8-year-old Elk Grove girl whose atheist father sued to have the phrase "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance is a Christian who never objected to the words, her mother says.

"I was concerned that the American public would be led to believe that my daughter is an atheist or that she has been harmed by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words 'one nation, under God,' " Sandra Banning said in a statement released Thursday.

"In our home we are practicing Christians, and are active in our church."

Banning's statement was her first public reaction since the Pledge of Allegiance was declared unconstitutional on June 26, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the phrase "under God" violated the separation of church and state.

The suit challenging the pledge was brought by Michael Newdow of Sacramento, the father of Banning's child.

Banning's statement said her daughter had "expressed sadness" at the court's decision.

The mother of the third-grader said she plans to pursue "appropriate legal motions" and has retained a Washington, D.C., law firm, Foley & Lardner. She also announced the establishment of a defense fund to cover her legal costs.

"It is my hope that these efforts will lead to a reversal of this decision," Banning said in the statement.

The ruling by a three-member panel of the 9th Circuit prompted a national outcry, and President Bush called it "out of step." A day later, Judge Alfred Goodwin, who wrote the majority decision, stayed his own ruling.

Newdow, an emergency room physician who also has a law degree, acted as his own attorney in the case. He argued that his daughter was "compelled to watch and listen as her state-employed teacher in her state-run school leads her and her classmates in a ritual proclaiming that there is a God, and that ours is 'one nation under God.' "

The court may have agreed with Newdow, but Banning says her daughter, who lives with her, will continue to say the entire pledge. She said her daughter, who attends an Elk Grove elementary school, had told her that she "would still whisper 'one nation under God' and no one will hear her and know she is breaking the law."

Banning declined to be interviewed Thursday, referring all questions to her Washington, D.C., attorney, Paul Sullivan. Sullivan did not return repeated phone calls.

Newdow, 49, seemed stunned that his daughter is upset. He said he would never do anything to harm her.

"She knew about it and was fine with it. She even attended the oral arguments with me," Newdow said. "She knows I'm an atheist, and she doesn't care. She's 8 years old -- it's not a major thing on her mind."

He said he is aware that his daughter attends church regularly with her mother and says he even reads Bible stories with her.

"We read stories together like Noah's Ark, and I tell her, 'Now, do you think this really happened? Does this make sense to you?' "

Newdow also said he never wanted his daughter to become an issue in the case.

"I have repeatedly made it clear that this is my lawsuit, not my daughter's," he said. "I have done everything I could to distance her from the controversy and to conceal her identity."

The news that the girl is a Christian who may not have been upset by the words "under God" has led some to speculate whether Newdow perjured himself in court and whether his claim has legal standing.

Courts can only hear cases in which there is an injured party, and if there is no injury there is no grounds for a case, Rory Little, a Hastings College of the Law professor who follows the 9th Circuit, told the Associated Press.

"The federal courts can't address anything unless it's a case of controversy," Little said. "You have to have injury."

Legal precedents also allow for cases to be reopened, even at the appellate level, if the legal standing of the plaintiff suddenly becomes an issue.

In his opinion, Goodwin wrote that Newdow claimed that his daughter was "injured."

"I don't think I said that," Newdow said. "I've repeatedly said that this is my case, not hers. And the whole issue is about religious dogma being forced down the throats of children."

The court also addressed the issue of whether Newdow had the legal standing to sue.

"Newdow has standing as a parent to challenge a practice that interferes with his right to direct the religious upbringing of his daughter," read the decision.

For now, Newdow is primarily concerned about his daughter. "She matters more to me than anything," said Newdow.

Sandra Banning, in her statement, said her daughter is also her priority. "My desire is to be the best mother I can be to my daughter and to protect her reputation."

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The Bee's Jennifer Garza can be reached at (916) 321-1033 or The Associated Press contributed to this story.