NJ Family Takes The Pledge Of Allegiance To Court, Suing For The Right To Strike 'Under God'

A New Jersey family is suing the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District and its superintendent to have the phrase "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, because it believes it to be discriminatory toward atheist children. The anonymous family members are joined in the lawsuit — filed in Superior Court in Monmouth County last month — by the American Humanist Association. The Washington D.C.-based advocacy group argues on behalf of the family that the Pledge of Allegiance in its current state violates a section of the New Jersey Constitution.

That section reads:

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.

The American Humanist Association, which has more than 24,800 members and 180 chapters and affiliates nationwide, first sent a letter to the school district to try to change the practice of the daily recitation of the Pledge. The district didn't budge, and so the group went ahead and filed the lawsuit.

“Public schools should not engage in an exercise that tells students that patriotism is tied to a belief in God,” said David Niose, attorney for the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in a statement. “Such a daily exercise portrays atheist and humanist children as second-class citizens, and certainly contributes to anti-atheist prejudices.”

The family — referred to in the lawsuit as John Doe, Jane Doe and Doechild — live their lives according to Humanism. The lawsuit explains that while atheism only addresses the specific issue of existence of a deity, Humanism is a "broader religious world view" that also encompasses a set of ethical values grounded in Enlightenment philosophy and scientific knowledge.

Attorney David Rubin, speaking on behalf of the school district, said that the district is simply following a state law that requires children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, and that if the family and the group disagree with this practice then they should take it up with the state Legislature rather than the individual school district itself.

Rubin also points out that students are not required to join in the recitation if they object, and they cannot be forced to do so. However, the lawsuit says that this is not an acceptable solution, and says the inclusion of "under God" in the daily recitation implies that atheists are less patriotic or even unpatriotic.

While Plaintiffs recognize that Doechild 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.

The lawsuit also points out that atheists often face discrimination for their beliefs. A 2006 survey by the University of Minnesota published in the American Sociological Review found that atheists are the most disliked and distrusted minority group in the United States, and that increasing acceptance of religious diversity has not been extended to the non-religious. According to the lawsuit, the Doe family have themselves experienced public prejudice against them as atheists.

A similar case, in which the American Humanist Association is also involved, is currently being considered by the Massachusetts Supreme Court concerning the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District.