Atheist Family Sues Over “Under God” Phrase in U.S. Pledge of Allegiance


An atheist family in New Jersey is suing the Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District over the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that students have to recite every day. The family, which chose to remain unidentified, filed the lawsuit in Monmouth County’s Superior Court because they believe the practice of acknowledging God in a pledge discriminates against non-believers. The American Humanist Association supported the family’s views by saying the practice does in fact violate New Jersey’s constitution.

According to attorneys of the school district, the school is merely following the law that requires students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

“All we are doing is abiding by requirements of state law, we and approximately 590 other school districts in the state… 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,” said attorney David Rubin.

The American Humanist Association in Washington DC is a non-profit organization that fights for the rights of humanists, atheists and non-believers. It has approximately 24,800 members and 180 chapters and affiliates across the country.

According to the lawsuit, atheism only disapproves the existence of deities but humanism has a much broader view that apart from rejecting the existence of deities, also values the philosophy of the enlightened - informed by scientific knowledge and driven by the desire to help people in the here and now.

“Among these members and supporters are numerous parents of children who are, or will be, attending New Jersey public schools, including some who attend or will be attending the public schools of the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District,” read the lawsuit.

Rubin said even though the law requires students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, those who object to it can refrain from doing so. However, the lawsuit suggests that the practice of reciting the pledge within the school district “publicly disparages plaintiffs' religious beliefs, calls plaintiffs' patriotism into question, portrays plaintiffs as outsiders and second-class citizens, and forces (the child) to choose between nonparticipation in a patriotic exercise or participation in a patriotic exercise that is invidious to him and his religious class.” The lawsuit also cited a recent study that revealed atheists and humanists are the most distrusted and disliked minority in the United States, ranking lower than immigrants, Muslims and gays.

“While plaintiffs recognize that (the child) has the right to refuse participation in the flag-salute exercise and pledge recitation, the child does not wish to be excluded from it, and in fact wants to be able to participate in an exercise that does not portray other religious groups as first-class citizens and his own as second-class,” read the suit.

David Niose, attorney for the American Humanist Association refused to reveal any information about the family’s identity saying that families involved in such lawsuits are often victimized. However, he did mention that the child of the unnamed family was personally confronted and persecuted when he or she openly identified as an atheist.

According to the lawsuit, the practice of reciting phrases like “under God” violates the equal protection clause of the constitution of New Jersey that says, “No person shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil or military right, nor be discriminated against in the exercise of any civil or military right, nor be segregated in the militia or in the public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.”

Niose said that lawsuit seeks for the court to agree that reciting phrases like “under God” as part of the Pledge of Allegiance is in fact discriminatory and unconstitutional and thereafter order either that the pledge not be recited in schools or the phrase “under God” be excluded from it. Reportedly, the phrase “under God” was added to the pledge only in 1954 even though the original pledge was written in 1892.

“The language 'under God' was added to the pledge at the height of the McCarthy era and the Red Scare, after strong lobbying by religious groups at a time when many felt it would help to distinguish America from the communist Soviet Union. The Soviet Union fell in 1991, and the need, if there ever was any, to distinguish America in this manner from communist adversaries no longer exists,” the lawsuit read.

The American Humanist Association said that the Massachusetts Supreme Court too is taking into account a similar lawsuit against the Acton Boxborough Regional School District.

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