WASHINGTON — Led by a California atheist who has tried to remove the phrase "under God" from the pledge of allegiance, a group of atheists filed suit in federal court Dec. 30 to block prayers and mentions of God at President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20.
Michael Newdow, joined in his complaint by 11 atheist and humanist groups, filed similar, unsuccessful suits in 2001 and 2005, when President Bush was sworn in. He has also tried to remove the reference to God in the pledge of allegiance, arguing that it constitutes an illegal government endorsement of religion.
The suit names Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who will swear in the new president, as well as California megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery, who will deliver the invocation and benediction, respectively, and other inauguration planners.
By adding the words "so help me God" to the oath of office, as Supreme Court chief justices and presidents have done since at least 1933, Roberts would "infuse the inaugural ceremony with purely religious dogma," the atheists charge. The atheists also object to the place of the Bible in the ceremony — Obama has asked for the copy used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861 — and the delivery of opening and closing prayers.
The atheists are not suing Obama, however, because he, "like all other individuals, has Free Exercise rights," the suit says, referring to the Constitution's protection of religious expression. The problem would come if Roberts "prompts" Obama to recite the phrase, according to the atheists.
"The use of sectarian prayer and religious phrases during the inauguration not only violates a clear reading of the First Amendment, it serves as a justification for the breach of church-state separation in other areas," said Bob Ritter, staff attorney for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association.
Warren's inclusion in the ceremony has also been criticized by liberals, particularly gay rights groups, who object to his vocal denunciations of same-sex marriage.
In a video sent to members of his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Warren fired back at his critics, accusing them of "Christophobia" and "hate speech," according to Associated Baptist Press.
"Some people feel today that if you disagree with them, then that's hate speech," Warren said. "If you disagree with them, you either hate them or you're afraid of them. I'm neither afraid of gays nor do I hate gays. In fact I love them, but I do disagree with some of their