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Taking on the Pledge of Allegiance

The News Media and Michael Newdow's Constitutional Challenge

Ronald Bishop, Nadine Strossen

Publication Year: 2007

Taking on the Pledge of Allegiance explores the landmark lawsuit filed by avowed atheist Michael Newdow against the Elk Grove Unified School District in California, in which he claimed the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Newdow’s original suit was ignored by the public and the news media until June 26, 2002, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional. This decision touched off a firestorm of negative reaction, both from politicians and from the public. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the ruling on Flag Day 2004. This book contains interviews with many of the parties involved, including Newdow and journalists who covered the case. Ronald Bishop examines how the news media marginalized Newdow after the Ninth Circuit’s ruling—acting as a “guard dog” for the government and for the ideas supposedly at the ideological heart of America—by framing the decision as an aberration, a radical act by a hopelessly liberal federal circuit court. Bishop concludes that journalists relegated Newdow to a rhetorical “protest zone”—he was heard, but from a safe distance.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page and Copyright

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pp. v

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pp. vii-xii

Ron Bishop’s valuable book documents in detail the media’s inaccurate and unfair coverage of Michael Newdow’s important constitutional litigation concerning two fundamental sets of rights that the Supreme Court long has protected: first, parents’ rights to make basic decisions about the education and upbringing of their own children—in particular, their chil-...


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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-9

In my sophomore year of high school, my homeroom teacher was a man named Ernie Steinman. Tall and bespectacled, he was not one for a lot of rules. Homeroom in late 1970s northern New Jersey was an unruly ritual. Most mornings, we (or at least my closest friends at the time and I) straggled in and, after staring out the window and waking up a bit (we had not been raised on the ritual of morning coffee that so many kids...

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1. Master Myths, Frames,Narratives, and Guard Dogs

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pp. 11-23

Journalists at first paid little attention to Michael Newdow’s suit. Several of the journalists with whom I spoke about Newdow argued there was a good reason for the absence of coverage: the suit, originally filed in Florida, was dismissed by a federal judge in the Eastern District of California a little more than six months after it was filed. In addition, Newdow, who earned a law degree from the University of Michigan, chose to...

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2. A Case of First Impression

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pp. 25-42

In his suit, originally filed in March 2000 in Sacramento federal court, Michael Newdow argued that both the California law that requires schools to conduct “appropriate patriotic exercises” (section 52720 of the state’s Education Code) and the Elk Grove and Sacramento School Districts policies requiring elementary school students to say the Pledge to start each school day violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Con-...

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3. An Impermissible Message of Endorsement

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pp. 43-54

In their response to Newdow filed with the Ninth Circuit, the school districts argued that while the Supreme Court had not yet directly addressed the question of whether the Pledge was constitutional, it has—in dicta found in several cases, including Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), and Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989)—held that “the inclusion of ‘under God’ in the Pledge passes con-...

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4. A Reputation for Unorthodox Opinions

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pp. 55-76

Coverage of the Ninth Circuit’s June 26 decision by journalists suggests that they were taken by surprise. But as journalists for network and cable news outlets began to deal with what quickly became a very “unruly” story, again using John Fiske’s term (quoted in Campbell,1991), they started to lay the foundation for several frames that suggested the Ninth Circuit’s ruling was an aberration, and would almost certainly...

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5. Their Own Little World

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pp. 77-96

In this chapter, I turn our attention to these questions: Did print journalists provide a more accurate, less inflammatory picture of Newdow? Did they leap as readily as their broadcast colleagues into the role of “guard dog?” What central storylines emerged from their coverage of the controversy? Did print reporters go beyond simply portraying Newdow as a scapegoat? ...

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6. The Good Mother

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pp. 97-115

Think for a moment about the stories you tell to explain events in your life to others. For example, when you’re late for an important meeting with someone because you’ve been sitting in jammed traffic, you typically don’t launch into a 20-minute discussion of traffic flow patterns or the level of federal and state funding for highway projects in your area—you talk about your anger, ...

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7. On to the Supreme Court

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pp. 117-132

To what could best be described as mixed reviews, the full Ninth Circuit on February 28, 2003, denied the government’s motion to reconsider their colleagues’ controversial June 2002 ruling. Some observers felt that the 15 judges who voted not to rehear the case wanted the Supreme Court to issue a definitive ruling, or were indicating that they in fact agreed with their colleagues’ controversial June 2002 ruling. ...

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8. Tepid and Diluted

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pp. 133-145

When most folks go to court, unless the matter is minor, they retain the services of an attorney. And when you’re headed for the Supreme Court, it strikes me that it’s not a bad idea to hire a lawyer—a very good lawyer, with experience arguing cases at that level. Still, the number of folks who choose to represent themselves is on the rise. ...

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9. Nice Try, Young Man

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pp. 147-166

Several newspaper articles that appeared in the weeks leading up to oral arguments before the Supreme Court complimented Newdow on the depth of his preparation. Lyle Denniston of the Boston Globe led his March 22, 2004, story by noting that Newdow would have “gone through 11 practice sessions” before heading off for the Supreme Court. ...

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10. We’re Saved—For Now

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pp. 167-182

The suggestion by reporters during and after coverage of oral arguments that the Supreme Court might sidestep the question of whether the Pledge was an Establishment Clause violation gives us another chance to see the guard dog at work. It has long been President Bush’s desire to weed out “activist judges”—those who, in the president’s words (words he uses repeatedly), “legislate from the bench.” ...


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pp. 183-197


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pp. 199-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780791479551
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791471814

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Religion in the public schools -- Law and legislation -- United States.
  • Bellamy, Francis. Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.
  • Newdow, Michael -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Flags -- Law and legislation -- United States.
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