Inaccurate WaPo Headline: 'Judge Clears the Way for Prayer at Swearing-In'

A federal judge threw out a spurious lawsuit by serial atheist litigant Michael Newdow. Yet in reporting the story in its January 16 print edition, the Washington Post made it sound like a federal judge has ended the suspsense and permitted prayers to be offered at the inauguration, as though they were seriously in danger in the first place.

"Judge Clears the Way for Prayer at Swearing-In," declared the page B4 headline in the Inauguration Watch digest. Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber echoed the headline's language in his lede:

A federal judge yesterday cleared the way for government officials and ministers to pray and make references to God during the swearing-in.

Wilber explained that "U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton refused to grant an injunction in a lawsuit seeking to block such references." Nowhere in his 3-paragraph-long brief did Wilber mention Newdow by name, nor his history of frivolous litigation such as trying to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency.

But it seems the trouble might be with Wilber's editors. An online version filed the afternoon of January 15 -- headlined "Judge: Reference to God Okay During Inauguration" -- was longer and mentioned both that Newdow was the ring leader in the legal freak show and that he's tried and failed, twice, before:

The group of atheists, led by Californian Michael A. Newdow, sued Roberts, several officials in charge of inaugural festivities, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery and megachurch pastor Rick Warren.

They filed the complaint in U.S. District Court. Newdow failed in similar lawsuits to remove prayer from President Bush’s swearing-in ceremonies in 2001 and 2005.

That being said, Wilber's online lede was nearly identical to the print version:

A federal judge moments ago cleared the way for government officials and ministers to pray and make references to God during the swearing-in of President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.