Monday, April 21, 2014, David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association, announced on WCBS News that his group filed a lawsuit against Monmouth County’s Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District stating the mandatory recitation of the United States of America’s Pledge of Allegiance is discriminatory against nonbelievers because it includes the phrase “under God.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an anonymous family in central New Jersey. The AHA is arguing the Pledge of Allegiance violates New Jersey’s Constitutional protection against discrimination due to religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin. Lawyer for the school district, David Rubin, responded by saying the district is following a state law that requires schools to have a daily recitation of the pledge, but as individuals, students do not have to participate.
The phrase “under God” was added to The Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 when Congress voted to add it as a protection against the threat of godless Communism. It is the “under God” wording that is problematic. If the school district is willing to revert back to the original Pledge of Allegiance which did not include the “under God” wording, that would be considered satisfactory, but foremost in the AHA agenda is having the current practice declared unconstitutional.
The American Humanist Association is awaiting a ruling from a Massachusetts’ court on a similar case. In the past, most challenges to the “under God” clause have been unsuccessful. A notable exception was in 2002, when the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the words are an endorsement of religion and therefore violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This ruling created quite a storm at the time and was eventually reversed when the US Supreme Court ruled the plaintiff, a noncustodial parent, didn’t have standing to bring the suit. The suit was refiled and the same Ninth Circuit Court ruled that the phrase is a historical reflection of beliefs that doesn’t constitute an endorsement of religion.
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association said, “It’s not the place of state governments to take a position on god-belief. The current pledge practice marginalizes atheist and humanist kids as something less than ideal patriots, merely because they don’t believe the nation is under God.” He goes on to say, “Children are taught that patriotism is defined a certain way. They’re taught to associate belief in God with patriot feelings. Certainly, with that being taught, the atheists look like an outsider. The atheist is stigmatized.”
Proponents for the phrase “under God” to be left in the pledge have argued to allow students to opt out of the pledge. For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the pledge constitutes idolatry and have been allowed to sit out the pledge, notes Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, one of the two defense attorneys in the Massachusetts case. Jehovah’s Witnesses won this right from the Supreme Court in 1943, when the court ruled that compulsory unification of opinion is unconstitutional.