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Elk Grove Unified School District V. Newdow

Elk Grove Unified School District V. NewdowFacts: Michael Newdow’s daughter attended public school in California. Teachers everyday lead their students in the reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Michael Newdow is an atheist and believes that the Pledge is religious indoctrination since it contains the words “under God” and violates the First Amendment. Newdow filed suit in federal district court arguing that making students listen to the Pledge was in violation of their First Amendment rights.

The district court found the pledge did not violate the First Amendment (establishment Clause) and dismissed the case. Newdow appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, the mother Sandra Banning filed a motion to have her daughter removed in the lawsuit. Banning claims her daughter willingly participated in the Pledge of Allegiance and that as her mother who has “exclusive legal custody” Newdow has no right to her legal claims. The appeals court after hearing Banning’s motion decided Newdow still had a case as it was his right under California law to expose his child to whatever religious views he wishes, even if they conflicted with the mother’s views.

The court of appeals found that both the school’s policy and the act of 1954 were unconstitutional and violated the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue: Does a “non-custodial” parent have standing to sue on the behalf of his daughter?

Opinion (Stevens, J)No. Newdow does not have legal grounds to challenge the school’s policy and thus, the question of constitutionality is void. Newdow may only sue the school’s policy on behalf of his daughter who he does not have legal rights over. Newdow is only has shared physical custody of his daughter while Sandra Banning has full legal custody over their daughter. Once Banning filed the motion to remove their daughter from the suit Newdow lost all grounds to sue on her behalf. Since Federal courts usually do not intervene in domestic issues the next best option is to defer to what the California courts have already decided, that Newdow has no legal custody.

Newdow does not have the grounds to sue as “next friend” and thus cannot challenge the school district policy. Concurrence (Rehnquist, C.J.) The majority misinterpreted the rules of domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction. Federal courts are not allowed to issue divorce, alimony, or child custody decrease, however, this is not a diversity case issue and the courts would not be issuing any such things. Thus, there is no conflict and the courts do have jurisdiction to hear the case. If the majority does want to defer to the state courts it should have been to the court of appeals not the district court. Even if this case was heard justly both acts were constitutional.

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