Class debates controversial case

Friday, December 5, 2003

In California, an atheist minister named Michael Newdow recently filed a suit against the Sacramento County, Calif., school district on behalf of his 9-year-old daughter. He feels that having the students say the "Pledge of Allegiance" at school each morning violates their Constitutional rights, specifically the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment.

The clause sets forth a separation of church and state. Newdow wishes to instill his own religious values in his daughter. He feels that the phrase "under God," which was not officially added to the pledge until 1954, has religious connotations that will interfere with Newdow teaching his daughter atheism.

Newdow never married the mother of his child, Sandra Banning, who does not have a problem with their child repeating the pledge each morning. Banning had full legal custody of the girl as of February 2002, but recently, Newdow has been given partial custody again.

The case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, is one of many topics Judge Blaine Akers has chosen for the English 305: Legal Writing and Research class he teaches at Indiana State University. He arranged for the students to debate the matter in the Clay Superior Courtroom Thursday night in front of a panel of "judges" that included Joe Trout, who will be the new Brazil city attorney; Laura Taylor, Akers' intern, who took the class last semester; and Seth Lewis, an attorney from Brownsburg.

The class was broken into groups; part of each did research and they decided who would do the oral argument. Katherine Jackson, a junior majoring in legal studies and African-American studies, and Jane Ellen McGuire, a second-semester junior criminology major, were assigned to argue Newdow's side. Akers pointed out that McGuire "really didn't believe" in the side she had to present, so she did a "very good job" speaking about what were "not her views."

Andrew Havran, a senior legal studies major, and Zac Garner, a criminology and political science major, represented the opposite side. The two major points discussed were Newdow's "standing," which is whether or not he has the right to file this lawsuit since he does not have full custody of his daughter, and if Newdow's rights as described in the establishment clause are really being denied.

This debate was the students' last assignment of the year, during which Akers has used several current national issues regarding law as the course's subject matter. In the past few weeks the class also had debates on capital punishment and assisted suicide. In addition, he has given the kids, most of whom "have an interest in going into law," several writing assignments.

Akers said he chose this topic in particular because it is a "community issue." He added that the Supreme Court will probably rule on Elk Grove V. Newdow, which he feels is "of great national importance," around February.

He chose the panel of judges in the hopes that the students would have a "chance to interact" with others who are already experienced in the fields they are hoping to enter. Trout feels that "Judge Akers has done a very good job of keeping the kids interested." He thought this was an excellent subject for debate because "judges have struggled with where to draw the line" in reference to religion "since the Constitution was first drafted."

Akers asked him to participate in the event because Trout is a practicing attorney and his son is a member of the class. He was "more than happy" to oblige. He feels it is important to teach the students about these kinds of things because "everyone has an interest in the Constitution and the law."

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