Michael Newdow is at it again. The California lawyer-physician–who sued to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance on the grounds that having his daughter recite them in school violated his Constitutional rights as an atheist–has a new cause: family law and the issue of child custody. In an October address at New York Law School sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, Newdow objected to the “outrageous” and in his view unconstitutional judicial precept that child-custody issues be resolved according to “the best interests of the child.” That standard is unconstitutionally vague, according to Newdow, since no one knows whether it is better, for instance, to teach children to be generous or stingy, to study Shakespeare or play baseball, and because “there are no valid studies that answer the question of what is best for children.”
Most important to Newdow, perhaps, he challenged the best-interests standard as elevating the rights of children over those of parents. For many parents, he stressed, being separated from their children is “worse than rape.”
Newdow himself never married the mother of his daughter, who retains legal custody of the girl. And it was on account of Newdow’s lack of custody that the Supreme Court ruled last June that he lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Pledge. (Neither mother nor daughter supported Newdow’s suit.) So perhaps this is the real reason for Newdow’s latest crusade. If the interests of biological parents–even those who never reared their children–have (at least) equal legal standing with those of the children, then the children can be more fully used as instruments of the parents’ quest for self-realization–say, by representing them in frivolous lawsuits against the children’s will.
Michael Newdow exemplifies the dangers of the sort of fanatic individualism combined with moral relativism that American courts, in decisions on issues ranging from free speech and the establishment of religion to abortion and gay marriage, have encouraged in recent decades. Whether or not we can reliably say that it’s better for a particular child to choose Shakespeare over baseball, we can surely judge that a parent who’s unwilling to put a child’s interests ahead of his own is unlikely to be a reliable guardian. We can also suggest to fathers that it will be easier to claim a role in their children’s upbringing if they marry the children’s mothers. (There are plenty of “valid studies” that affirm the benefits to children of growing up in homes with two parents who are married to one another.)
Michael Newdow’s attitude toward parenting is precisely the same as his attitude toward patriotism (including the support that religion provides to civic morality): He wants to enjoy the benefits of social institutions without any of the attendant responsibilities–except on his own terms. The ACLU, along with many of our most influential jurists, stands ready to assist him in this quest.
To put it in Newdowian terms, may “God” help us.
–David Lewis Schaefer is professor of political science at Holy Cross College.