A judge in New Jersey is yet to decide whether an atheist group can challenge the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Monmouth County Superior Court Judge David Bauman said he would soon decide whether Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District could dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association (AHA), a secular group based in Washington DC that wants to omit the contentious religious phrase from the pledge, which is recited on a daily basis in many schools.
On November 19, Bauman heard arguments pitted by both sides – one constituted of the school district, lawyers for the Knights of Columbus, the Becket Fund (a Washington-based group that advocates religious freedom) and the American Legion while the other constituted of no one but the AHA, a secular group which works to secure the rights of atheists and nonbelievers.
The AHA had filed the court case against Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District in April after the family of a student approached them with a valid concern. Their lawsuit claimed that the practice of acknowledging God in the Pledge of Allegiance often makes atheists feel discriminated against and no one in New Jersey should have to feel that way as its constitution provides otherwise.
David Rubin, the school district’s attorney, said he is trying to have the lawsuit dismissed on numerous grounds – the most important one being New Jersey law requiring the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited in public schools on a daily basis. The second reason, he pointed out, is the fact that not every student is required to participate in the Pledge.
Reportedly, these two reasons defeat the plaintiff’s claim of a civil rights violation, as the government is technically not treating any person differently.
“There's not been a requirement or a prohibition from doing anything. … It's simply a recognition of the undeniable, historical fact that religion played an important role in the formation of this country and the development of our government institutions,” Rubin said.
David Niose, AHA’s attorney, said even though students may not be required to participate in the Pledge, it still makes atheists and nonbelievers feel out of place and discriminated against when other students say the phrase “under God” in a unified manner.
“It paints one group as quintessential patriots and the other group as second-class citizens,” he said.
Niose also said the Pledge is different in comparison to other school activities that some may find objectionable because this particular practice begins before kindergarten and goes on till the 12th grade. AHA had fought for a similar case earlier this year in Massachusetts but the highest court in that state ruled against the humanist organization, saying the Pledge does not discriminate against anyone, as its recitation is voluntary. Niose said on Wednesday that the Massachusetts court was “simply wrong” in delivering that verdict.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 and its original draft did not include the phrase “under God.” The contentious phrase was added much later, in 1954, and that is why critics believe it should be done away with as it is not even in the original text.
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