(CN) – The Supreme Court refused to take up an atheist challenge to the use of the phrase, “So help me God,” at the conclusion of the presidential oath of office during a president-elect’s inauguration.
The lawsuit was the latest attempt by Michael Newdow, a Sacramento, Calif.-based atheist, to rid government-sanctioned public discourse of any reference to a deity.
His first lawsuit challenged the recitation of the words “under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance in his daughter’s classroom. That case reached the Supreme Court in 2004, but was ultimately dismissed on the grounds that Newdow lacked legal standing.
His latest lawsuit initially asked a federal judge to block Chief Justice John Roberts from reciting “So help me God” while administering the oath in January 2009 to President-elect Obama. It also sought an order preventing two members of the clergy from conducting an invocation and benediction during the 2009 inauguration.
But a federal judge threw the suit out, ruling that the atheists lacked the necessary legal standing to bring the litigation.
Newdow then amended his complaint to seek an injunction against religious references in future inaugurations in 2013 and 2017.
At issue in the case – which named the chief justice, potential prayer leaders, and inauguration committee members as defendants was whether recitation of the phrase “So help me God” by the chief justice amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government, in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
Neither the federal judge nor the federal appeals court ever reached the establishment clause issue during deliberations. Instead, the case was dismissed because the courts determined the atheist again lacked legal standing to raise the issue.
Further, the appellate said, the defendants had no way to redress the issue, because the content of the inaugural ceremony is entirely dependent on the president or president-elect’s wishes.
That theme was echoed by a brief filed before the Supreme Court by Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal who opined that “only a judicial order running against the president or president-elect would result in the relief that [the atheists] seek. But [they] have not filed suit against the president or president-elect.”