WASHINGTON A federal judge yesterday refused to order the words "so help me God" taken out of President-elect Barack Obama's oath of office next week or to prevent ministers from praying at the inauguration celebration.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton turned down a request from a group of atheists and agnostics to force Chief Justice John Roberts not to add those words to the 35-word inaugural oath outlined in the Constitution.
The group, led by California atheist Michael Newdow, also wanted to prohibit Obama's chosen inaugural ministers, the Revs. Joseph Lowery and Rick Warren, from offering prayers at the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Newdow, who lost a Supreme Court battle to get the words "under God" taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance, failed in similar challenges to the use of religious words and prayers at President George W. Bush's inaugurations.
The presidential oath of office dictated by the Constitution is 35 words long and reads: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
The National Archives says George Washington added the words "so help me God" when he took the oath at his 1789 inaugural, and most presidents have used it since. However, some have argued that the first eyewitness account of a president using those words came at President Chester Arthur's inauguration in 1881.
Obama already has told Roberts he wants to use the words "so help me God" when he takes the oath.
Walton said he didn't have the authority to order Obama not to say the words, saying the president-elect had a right to free speech. The judge also questioned whether he had the authority to give the chief justice an order not to say "so help me God" after the oath.
Newdow argued that the inclusion of those words was an unconstitutional intrusion of religion into government. Roberts is acting in his capacity as a constitutional officer in giving the oath, he argued, so it didn't matter that Obama has asked him to alter it to include "so help me God."
"He has no right to do what the president-elect has asked him to do when it violates the Constitution," Newdow said.
Walton also said he didn't think that prayer at the ceremony "is somehow going to give the impression that the government is endorsing religion."
Walton also complained about the lateness of the filing, saying that there was not enough time to get the case litigated and appealed before next week's inauguration. He did not throw the case out, however, instead only refusing to stop the inauguration.