Federal Court Dismisses Case Challenging Prayers At Presidential Inauguration

A federal court has dismissed a challenge to the prayers that took place during the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Atheist activist Michael Newdow initiated the lawsuit in late December, seeking to block prayers during the Jan. 20 event. Newdow was joined by a variety of atheist, freethought and humanist organizations, but the legal effort was not successful.  

On Jan. 16, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton refused to issue a preliminary injunction barring the prayers and use of the phrase “So help me, God” by Chief Justice John G. Roberts during the presidential oath.

On March 12, Walton dismissed the entire case. He ruled that the plaintiffs lack “standing” – the legal right to sue – because they have “identified no concrete and particularized injury.”

Added Walton, “And, even if the plaintiffs could establish such an injury, they have failed to demonstrate how the harm they allege is redressable by the relief they seek, or that the Court has any legal authority to award the relief requested.”

Newdow has litigated this issue twice before, challenging inaugural prayers in 2001 and 2005. He lost both times, and Walton held that Newdow’s prior unsuccessful litigation means he no longer has the right to challenge inaugural prayers in court.

In early March, Newdow and his supporters attempted to add an additional 230 plaintiffs to the Newdow v. Roberts case, including 40 children. They argued that future inaugural ceremonies in 2013 and 2017 might include prayers and religious references, but Walton rejected this move as well, saying the “speculative nature about what will occur at the next two Inaugural ceremonies lacks any persuasive value.”

Bob Ritter, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, one of the groups joining the legal effort, said there will be an appeal.

“There is a deep lack of understanding by the Court how the non-theistic community suffered when a dominant Christian culture was endorsed by the government in the 2009 presidential inaugural ceremony,” Ritter said.