Why New Jersey atheists don't want Pledge of Allegiance in school

A lawsuit has been filed in New Jersey that says the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance discriminates against atheist children. A similar case in Massachusetts is awaiting a court ruling.

A family is suing a New Jersey school district, contending that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance discriminates against atheist children.

The lawsuit against the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District was filed in state court last month and was announced Monday by the American Humanist Association. The group says the phrase, added in 1954, "marginalizes atheist and humanist kids as something less than ideal patriots."

The anonymous plaintiffs say those two words "under God" violate the state constitution.

But school district lawyer David Rubin says the district is merely following a state law that requires schools to have a daily recitation of the pledge. He says individual students don't have to participate.

The humanist group is awaiting a ruling from a court on a similar case in Massachusetts.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported last fall in the Massachusetts case:

“We have constitutional protections demanding equality," says David Niose, the attorney for the plaintiffs and president of the Secular Coalition for America. "The state statute that requires daily recitation – sponsored by school, led by teacher – of the Pledge of Allegiance, obviously discriminates against atheist and humanist children. On a daily basis, you’re having patriotism defined and having children indoctrinated in way that exalts one religious group and marginalizes atheists and humanists.”

In the past, most challenges to the “under God” clause in the Pledge have been unsuccessful. The notable exception was in 2002, when the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, in fact, the words are an endorsement of religion and violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment – a ruling that created a small political storm at the time. That ruling was reversed, however, when the US Supreme Court held that the plaintiff (a noncustodial parent) didn’t have standing to bring the suit. When a new suit was filed and reached that same Ninth Circuit eight years later, the court ruled that, in fact, the phrase is a historical reflection of beliefs that doesn’t constitute an endorsement of religion.

Atheists unhappy with the phrase in the Pledge have long pointed out that, in fact, that phrase doesn’t have many historical roots: The original Pledge – written in 1892 and adopted by Congress as a national pledge in 1942 – didn’t contain the words “under God.” The phrase was added in 1954 during the McCarthy Era.

Proponents of the pledge have argued that the solution is to allow students to opt out of the pledge. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe the pledge constitutes idolatry, have been sitting out the pledge for a very long time, notes Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, one of two defense attorneys in the Massachusetts case. They won the right from the Supreme Court in 1943, when the court ruled that “compulsory unification of opinion” is unconstitutional.

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