The parents of some New Jersey schoolchildren have sued the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, and the district’s Superintendent of Schools, David M. Healy to end the practice.
The parents contend that the school district violates their Constitutional Right to Freedom of Religion by forcing their children to say the phrase "under God" when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District is located in the northeastern part of the State, just south of Perth Amboy, and across Lower New York Bay from Staten Island.
It is a large suburban district with about 4,000 students and 300 teachers in 7 schools.
According to the lawsuit, the School District’s policy also violates the New Jersey Constitution.
The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Monmouth County on behalf of the family by the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the rights of people who have non-traditional religious views.
However, the attorney for the school district, David Rubin, says the district is simply following a New Jersey state law that requires pupils to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.
"All we are doing is abiding by requirements of state law.
If the group who's brought this lawsuit questions the wisdom of that policy or the legality of it, we believe their arguments are much better directed to the state Legislature who's imposed this requirement on us, rather than suing an individual school district on this matter."
The school district’s lawyer makes a good point, but he may not have gone far enough.
The New Jersey Legislature could amend current New Jersey law so that the children of families who have non-traditional religious beliefs, would not be required to recite the phrase “Under God” every morning.
That would defuse the situation in a heartbeat, but that is not going to happen in the current political climate in New Jersey.
Even if a miracle happened and the legislature passed an amendment to change the law, New Jersey’s embattled Governor Chris Christie would never sign the legislation.
Christie has enough problems with the George Washington Bridge scandal and the Super Storm Sandy scandal. He is not going to do anything to alienated the religious right wing of the Republican Party by removing the requirement to say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
But even if the legislature, and the embattled Governor, changed the New Jersey law, it still wouldn’t solve the problem.
It is a nation-wide problem. In fact, the Massachusetts Supreme Court is considering an almost identical issue in a suit against the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, which runs nine schools in suburban Boston.
People with non-traditional views all over the country are concerned that their Constitutional rights are being trampled on by those who have more traditional religious beliefs.
It didn’t have to be this way. The words “under God” were not always part of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), who was a socialist and a Baptist minister.
Bellamy was from Mount Morris, New York (the home of my beautiful wife’s grandparents) and he graduated from the University of Rochester.
In its original form, as first published in The Youth's Companion on September 8, 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance read:
"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
The words, "the Flag of the United States of America" were added in 1923, so the Pledge read:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Then in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words "under God," to the Pledge.
At the time, Bellamy's daughter objected to the alteration, but Congress passed it anyway. That’s why the current Pledge of Allegiance reads:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
At the time, I also objected to the change, but nobody listened to a nine-year old schoolboy.
I had just memorized the Pledge and I struggled with where the two new words should go. Was it “one nation under God, indivisible” or was it “one nation indivisible, under God”…?
Since the words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance by Congress, the lawsuit by the American Humanist Association might make its way all the way to the US Supreme Court.
But with the “strict constructionist” right-wing beliefs of the Supreme Court majority, there is no guarantee that the Supreme Court will protect the rights of people who have non-traditional religious beliefs.
What makes this case so ironic is that the many of founding fathers did not hold traditional religious beliefs.
"Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."
Thomas Jefferson August 10, 1787
Like the people who filed the lawsuit in New Jersey, Jefferson was a Humanist.
He was greatly influenced by the great philosophers of the Enlightenment: John Locke (1632 – 1704), Charles Montesquieu (1689 – 1755), Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), and François Voltaire (1694 – 1778)
You have to wonder what Thomas Jefferson would think about the idea of forcing schoolchildren, whose parents do not believe in the traditional view of God, to the say phrase "under God" every day when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
My guess is that Jefferson would say that it is a stupid idea, and a gross violation of the First Amendment.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….