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Parents' Pledge Of Allegiance Feud

A family feud has broken out in the Supreme Court between California parents who disagree about whether their daughter - and other children - should start each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance.

The case has gotten personal. In court filings, Sandra Banning claims Michael Newdow is a poor father, while Newdow says Banning is lying to the justices.

Newdow, a 50-year-old atheist and physician who lives in Sacramento, sued the school district where his daughter was a second-grader. An appeals court agreed with his claim that her constitutional right to religious liberty was violated by hearing the pledge. The court said the pledge should be barred from public schools.

Newdow has asked the Supreme Court for a broader ruling to eliminate the words "under God" from the pledge.

A team of attorneys representing Banning is trying to persuade the court to uphold the pledge.

Former solicitor general and independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the lead lawyer, told justices in court papers that Banning "believes the pledge is an important, patriotic expression of American ideals that reflects the democratic beliefs of a diverse society."

Her daughter does not object to the pledge and should not be involved in the Supreme Court case, said Starr, who is working on the case for free.

Newdow, meanwhile, said in an objection this month that Banning's filing is full of "blatant distortions and untruths" and should not be considered. He is serving as his own attorney.

Newdow and Banning, who never married, are locked in a custody dispute that could be an important part of the case. At issue is whether Newdow, who does not have legal custody, had standing to sue on behalf of his daughter.

The Bush administration has suggested the Supreme Court could erase the ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco without even scheduling arguments. The administration said Banning, not Newdow, has the sole responsibility to make decisions about the girl's health, education and welfare.

W. William Hodes, an Indianapolis attorney and former Supreme Court clerk, said that the question of Newdow's standing could dominate the case.

"It must be very uncommon and disconcerting for the court to have weighty jurisdictional issues infected by a garden variety, very personal, very nonconstitutional food fight between parents," he said. "The court doesn't want any part of that, but what can they do?"

In his filings, Newdow describes himself as a loving, active parent.

Not so, according to Banning, who lives in Elk Grove, Calif. She says in the filing that he has been infrequently involved with the girl and that he once evicted her and the daughter from a home where they lived.

Banning "does not want her young child to be involved in Newdow's personal litigation battles," Starr wrote in a filing last month with the court. Starr is best known for investigating President Clinton's Whitewater real estate dealings and Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern.

In his response, Newdow said he bought a house in North Carolina for Banning, his daughter and Banning's child by another man. He also said his former girlfriend had recently demanded $145,000 for her legal bills. "That hardly sounds like the amount of money generally needed to fight a parent as uninterested and undevoted as Newdow is depicted," he wrote.

By Gina Holland

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