WASHINGTON — A federal court has refused a plea from atheists to forbid prayers at President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration, including the use of "so help me God" at the end of his oath of office.
Judge Reggie Walton of the U.S. District Court in Washington denied the request Thursday for a temporary restraining order, said the American Humanist Association, which had sued on behalf of a number of individuals and organizations.
The judge ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove a concrete harm that would occur and that he did not have authority over the Presidential Inaugural Committee because it is an independent entity and not a government agent, the group said.
Fred Edwords, communications director for the group that espouses ethical life "without theism," said the request for an order was a long shot because the full case had not been argued.
He said the suit would be pursued in coming months aimed at blocking the use of prayer at inaugurations in coming years. Obama will be sworn in as the 44th U.S. president on Tuesday.
Among other things, the group objected to the use of the phrase "so help me God" at the end of the presidential oath of office because the oath, as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution, does not include those words.
Historians dispute how it came to be used, some saying the words were added by George Washington at the first presidential inaugural in 1789.
The tradition "alienates millions of Americans who don't believe in a god," the group said.
Bob Ritter, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said the religious trappings violate the principle of the separation of church and state.
"The individual plaintiffs, who will be watching the inaugural either in person or on TV, are being denied their free exercise of religion rights by our government telling them that monotheism is the preferred religion in this country and that they are 'outsiders' or 'second-class citizens,'" he said.
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