Member # 2
July 1, 2002
'Under God' Iconoclast Looks to Next Targets
By EVELYN NIEVES
SACRAMENTO, June 27 — There is so much about society that Mike Newdow would like to change.
He does not understand, for example, why the English language allows itself anything so cumbersome and awkward as masculine and feminine pronouns. The Mike Newdow dictionary would replace "he" and "she" with "re," "his" and "hers" with "rees" and "him" and "her" with "erm."
"Come on, try it out," he says. " `Re went to the store.' It's easy."
Of course, it was another one-syllable word — God — that gave Mr. Newdow, 49, an emergency room doctor and a lawyer, his moment in the national spotlight. He argued that the phrase "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the separation of church and state — and won, at least with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco.
But he is not stopping there.
Despite the outpouring of outrage from politicians and pundits over the pledge ruling — not to mention the death threats on his answering machine — Mr. Newdow still plans to challenge the use of "In God We Trust" on currency. He would like to see an end to prayers at presidential inaugurations. "At President Bush's it just went on and on," he says, clearly annoyed. "I said, `Holy smokes, they can't do that!' " As an atheist, he plans to ferret out all insidious uses of religion in daily life. "Why should I be made to feel like an outsider?"
Yet the First Amendment is hardly Mr. Newdow's only preoccupation, even if he calls himself the founding minister of the First Amendment Church of True Science (FACTS). More than anything, Mr. Newdow, a father in the throes of a custody dispute, would like to change family law.
Even more than the phrase "one nation, under God," the term "in the best interests of the child" infuriates Mr. Newdow no end. It raises his blood pressure, turns his words into an angry jumble and makes him late for appointments. Television reporters still looking for sound bites on the pledge from Mr. Newdow would be well advised to steer clear of asking about his real obsession. As he himself warns, "I could go on about family law for days."
Partly because he was successful in arguing the unconstitutionality of the pledge — a feat all the constitutional lawyers he conferred with said was impossible — and partly because he is quite the overachiever — he is working on a master's degree in public health and recently passed the bar exam — when he says he is "planning on changing family law" people might want to take him seriously.
His 8-year-old daughter, whom he followed when her mother moved to Sacramento from Florida two years ago, is the light of his life, he says, but the courts will not let him prove it. The stay-at-home parent, he complains, gets the benefit of the doubt in court.
He shares custody, but not his goal of half the time. He is also miffed that because he is the primary wage earner of the two parents, the court keeps ordering him to pay for his daughter's mother's legal fees every time he and she land in court.
"It's the worst system in the entire nation," he said of California Family Court. "You want to do a real story? Do it on the family courts. They steal people's children based on absolutely nothing. They take the most important people in a child's life and make them go away. You challenge them and it's impossible to win because most family court judges were family court lawyers for 20 years and they don't want you challenging things they spent their careers endorsing, and getting rich from. Do I sound passionate?"
Mr. Newdow, who grew up in Teaneck, N.J., graduated from Brown University, the University of Michigan Law School and the University of California at Los Angeles medical school. Although he began challenging the "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1997, he never took a state bar exam until he decided to take on family law. He took the California test in February, 14 years after he graduated from law school, and passed without studying — "by sheer luck," he says.
His custody fights are the reason he cut back on his work as an emergency room doctor, he said. Now, he spends just two days a month as an attending physician in the emergency room at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center. "Now family law takes up all of my time," he said.
He recently filed a brief, he said, challenging the court's demand that he pay his daughter's mother's lawyer fees based on a legal fight over whether he could have custody of his daughter on a certain day.
"Completely unproven assumptions are accepted to achieve a goal — `the best interests of the child' — that itself is arbitrary and indefinable, and for which there are no valid measurements," he said.
Mr. Newdow, who is still fielding requests for interviews on the pledge, says he never tires of discussing issues important to him. He is even willing to debate on tabloid television shows. "When you have right on your side, the argument is easy," he said.
No one can doubt the courage of his convictions. Just before the interview was over, he reminded the reporter to remember his ideas for changing the English language. "Don't forget the re, rees, erm thing," he said. "Just make it a little aside. Our language would be so much richer."
Inside the will of God there is no failure. Outside the will of God there is no success.
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