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Elk Grove Unified Sch. Dist. v. Newdow - 542 U.S. 1, 124 S. Ct. 2301 (2004)


The United States Supreme Court's standing jurisprudence contains two strands: Article III standing, which enforces the United States Constitution's case or controversy requirement, and prudential standing, which embodies judicially self-imposed limits on the exercise of federal jurisdiction. The Article III limitations are familiar: The plaintiff must show that the conduct of which he complains has caused him to suffer an "injury in fact" that a favorable judgment will redress. 


Petitioner-defendant Elk Grove Unified School District ("District") required each elementary school class to recite daily the Pledge of Allegiance. Respondent-plaintiff Michael A. Newdow's daughter participated in the exercise. Newdow, an atheist, filed suit in federal district court alleging that the Pledge constituted religious indoctrination of his child in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses because it contained the words "under God." He also alleged that he had standing to sue on his own behalf and on behalf of his daughter as "next friend." A magistrate judge concluded that the Pledge was constitutional and the district court agreed and dismissed the complaint. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Newdow had standing as a parent to challenge a practice that interfered with his right to direct his daughter's religious education, and that the District's policy violated the Establishment Clause. Sandra Banning, the child's mother, then filed a motion to intervene or dismiss, declaring that she had exclusive legal custody under a state-court order and that as her daughter's sole legal custodian, she felt it was not in the child's interest to be a party to Newdow's suit. Concluding that Banning's sole legal custody did not deprive Newdow, as a noncustodial parent, of Article III standing to object to unconstitutional government action affecting his child, the Ninth Circuit held that, under California law, Newdow retained the right to expose his child to his particular religious views even if they contradicted her mother's, as well as the right to seek redress for an alleged injury to his own parental interests. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari.


Did Newdow have standing to file suit?




The Supreme Court of the United States determined that Newdow lacked prudential standing to bring suit in federal court. It was improper for the federal courts to entertain the claim of Newdow whose standing to sue was founded on family law rights that were in dispute, when prosecution of the lawsuit could have had an adverse effect on the person who was the source of his claimed standing. Also, nothing that either the mother or District had done impaired Newdow's right to instruct his daughter in his religious views.

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