Michael Newdow never had a problem reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when he was in elementary school. He just didn't want to repeat the words "under God."
Now, after years of unsuccessful legal fights, the Sacramento atheist has won a legal battle that has made him the target of hate mail and has critics questioning his patriotism.
"I believe I have done something good for America," said Newdow after a federal appeals court judge last week declared the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional.
"Congress never intended to force people to worship a religion that they don't believe in" when lawmakers added the words "under God" to the pledge in 1954, said Newdow.
On Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sparked a firestorm of criticism by ruling the pledge violates the separation of church and state and can no longer be said in schools.
Many Americas don't seem to agree. Since the ruling, which is on hold pending a decision on a rehearing, Newdow has received a flood of angry calls and e-mails.
But since a decade ago, when he realized during a shopping excursion that all his currency said "In God We Trust," he knew he had to do something.
Newdow, who has a bachelor's from Brown University, a medical degree from the University of California at Los Angeles and a law degree from the University of Michigan, filed the claim against the Elk Grove Unified School District on behalf of his daughter, a second-grader.
The daughter, who he is raising to be an atheist, splits her time between her father's home in Sacramento and her mother Sandra Banning's home in Elk Grove.
Before his immersion in publicity, Newdow lived a quiet, American life, he said. The federal ruling came just three days after Newdow turned 49.
His upper-middle-class home in south Sacramento is across the street from a park; drawings by his daughter hang on the mint green walls inside. Children's videos lie near the television, stuffed animals adorn the living room couch and a rose garden in the backyard makes for simple flower arrangements in his kitchen.
In June 1998, while a part-time resident of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he sued then-President Clinton, the U.S. Congress and the Broward County school board to delete "under God" from the pledge. The suit was dropped when he moved to California and lost legal standing.
Once in California, he tried again. He went to the principal at Florence Markofer Elementary School, where his daughter attends school, and asked her to remove the pledge from the children's daily routine.
When she refused, he took his complaint to a school board meeting. Ignored, he filed the lawsuit with the 9th Circuit, acting as his own attorney.
Elk Grove Superintendent Dave Gordon said he was shocked and surprised by the court's ruling last week. The district, he said, is "proud to defend the Pledge of Allegiance" and plans to appeal.
Newdow said he will continue to represent himself.
"I feel like I am not an American in the eyes of my government because of their religious beliefs," he said, sitting in shorts and a t-shirt at his kitchen table. "I think that is un-American."
A longtime UCLA colleague, Dr. Gregory Moran, described Newdow as an "a very bright person" and "a critical thinker."
"I think it's important that people get an accurate picture of who he is and why he's doing this," said Moran. "I think a lot of what we're hearing is that he's a crackpot and he really is not."
Yet the range of people who call the ruling "ridiculous" extends from the president of the United States to parents at his daughter's school.
"He needs to get a hobby," said Kathleen Doncaster, whose daughter attends Florence Markofer.
Politicians also denounced last week's ruling. The Senate voted unanimously in condemnation, and the House voted 416-3 for a similar resolution.
Newdow shrugs at the reaction.
"It's my parental right to keep the government off my child," said Newdow, who continues to cross 'In God We Trust' off paper money.
"Think about having some religious thing you don't believe in and imagine how you feel sending your child to school and having her hear that. I wish America understood that."
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