By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Atheist Michael Newdow sought to convince U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday that schoolchildren reciting "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance amounts to a government-imposed religious exercise.
He argued it violates constitutional church-state separation, winning applause in the courtroom at one point, but several skeptical justices said students can be excused from the recitations or can simply not say the "under God" part.
The justices questioned whether Newdow also objected to singing "God Bless America" in classrooms, to the use of "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency and to "God save the United States and this honorable court" as part of its opening invocation.
Newdow, an emergency room doctor from California who has a law degree and is acting as his own attorney, said the pledge in schools was different, almost like a prayer.
"I am an atheist. I don't believe in God," he said. "My daughter is asked to stand up and say her father is wrong."
The girl's mother, a born-again Christian who supports her saying the pledge, was in the courtroom for the arguments.
Newdow, 50, held his own under a barrage of fast-paced questions. Chief Justice William Rehnquist threatened to clear the courtroom if spectators applauded Newdow a second time.
Rehnquist had asked what the vote was when the U.S. Congress in 1954 added "under God" to the pledge. The law was an effort to distinguish America's religious values and heritage from those of communism, which is atheistic.
NO ATHEIST CAN GET ELECTED TO CONGRESS
Newdow replied the vote was unanimous. Rehnquist said that did not sound divisive to him. "That's only because no atheist can get elected to public office," Newdow answered, triggering the applause, a rare event in the high court.
Rehnquist sternly said, "The courtroom will be cleared if there is any more clapping."
The ruling could be the most important in years involving what role religion can play in schools and public life. The case has sparked a political uproar and generated widespread interest.
Millions of students every day say, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the government's chief advocate before the Supreme Court, defended the pledge as a patriotic, not a religious, exercise.
He said the pledge was not a state-sponsored prayer, not a religious ritual and did not involve teaching religious doctrine.
Terence Cassidy, an attorney who represents the local California school district, argued Newdow lacked the legal right to even bring the case because he does not have custody of his daughter.
The court could dismiss the case on that technical point without deciding the merits of the dispute. Newdow argued that having his daughter listen to the pledge causes harm to him and the case therefore could be decided.
During the course of the arguments, several of the justices appeared skeptical of Newdow's overriding argument.
"She does have a right not to participate," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said.
Rehnquist said the pledge "doesn't sound anything like a prayer."
And Justice David Souter asked whether the affirmation of God in the midst of a civic exercise "is so tepid, so diluted, so far from a compulsory prayer that it should in effect be beneath the constitutional radar."
"To say this is not religious is somewhat bizarre," Newdow said. "When I see the flag and think of the Pledge of Allegiance, it's like I'm getting slapped in the face every time."
The court's decision is due by the end of June.