Pledge of Allegiance back in the courts

I thought that legal challenges to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in schools because of objections to the phrase ‘under God’ had been exhausted when several federal Courts of Appeals had all agreed that it was constitutional and that the lack of conflicting rulings made it unlikely that the US Supreme Court would hear the case.

But the practice of formally saying the pledge in schools is still being challenged in state courts under state constitutions. The American Humanist Association has filed two suits. One is awaiting a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court while another suit has just been filed against a school district in New Jersey. (Thanks to reader DsylexicHippo for the link.)

According to a press release from the AHA about the latter case:

The case was filed by the American Humanist Association (AHA) on behalf of a Monmouth County family who wish to remain anonymous. It claims that daily school-sponsored recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance—declaring to students that the nation is “under God”—is discriminatory toward atheist children and their families. The American Humanist Association originally sent a letter of complaint to the superintendent of schools for the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District in Monmouth County on February 19, but the school system responded by saying it would not change the practice.

“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. “Such a daily exercise portrays atheist and humanist children as second-class citizens, and certainly contributes to anti-atheist prejudices.”

The American Humanist Association claims that the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance violates Article 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, which states, “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.”

It should be noted that courts have already established that no one can be forced to say the pledge at all, that it has to be voluntary. Of course, we have seen that there can be considerable pressure, especially on children, to conform and do something that everyone else around them is doing and which the teacher and school district seem to expect. As the above-linked news report says:

The daily affirmation of God in public schools reinforces a prejudice against atheists and Humanists, the suit said. The suit claims that studies show atheists are the most disliked and distrusted minority group in the country, ranking below recent 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,” the suit said.

The New Jersey family that brought the suit wants to be anonymous, just like the family that sued in Massachusetts. This is suggestive of how even in the allegedly liberal northeastern US there is still fear of retaliation for challenging religious and patriotic orthodoxy.

David Niose, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, declined to provide any specific information about the family, including what school the child attends and what grade he or she is in.

“Anonymity is very important,” he said, explaining that families involved in these types of lawsuits often are exposed to “great hostility.”

In fact, the suit alleges that the child in question “has been personally confronted and shouted at in response to his openly identifying as an atheist.” When questioned, Niose would not say whether the child was actually confronted in school or by whom the child was confronted.

Susan Galloway, one of the middle-aged women who brought the suit against the town of Greece in upstate New York, said that she felt a lot of pressure to stand along with the other people at the town meetings when they were asked to stand for the Christian prayer, even though she is Jewish. She spoke about the hostility she has faced from other town people after she filed her lawsuit.

If an adult can feel so pressured, it is much greater for children in schools who have no choice but to be there.


  1. David Marjanović says

    Twenty gods or no god, I still don’t understand why the Pledge of Allegiance even exists. Only dictatures and the US have such a thing.

  2. astrosmash says

    how else are you going to combine 2 of the things i most despise? Religion and Jingoistic nationalism…

  3. Menyambal says

    I object to saying the pledge every morning at school, regardless of the God bit. It should be a solemn, once in a lifetime thing, taken seriously. Rattling it off every morning diminishes it into a form of hypnotism, and makes patriotism a reflexive habit.

    The God bit is also very offensive, and should not be in there. And it is a recent addition. But the conservatives defend it, just as if they have been hypnotized into a reflexive patriotism.

    (I tend to just not say the God part, and some days I keep silent for the indivisible word, too.)

  4. Storms says

    In school I used to say “underdog”, to remind myself that my allegiance was conditional on the US behaving in a moral, non-bullying manner. How little I knew then, of the horrific corruption and malfeasance my country condones, supports and commits every day. I’m often ashamed to call myself an American.

  5. thorarin says

    The courts have long had a variety of tools available to them when they don’t want to actually rule on the merits of a case. Some we can’t do anything about like when a court refuses to hear an appeal no matter how bad the lower court ruling was. Others, like the idea of “ceremonial deism” and denying the social and psychological harm suffered by some non-Christians by the government’s clear preference for and bias towards Christianity, should be something that can be challenged with evidence. Does anyone know if anyone is doing the surveys and scientific studies that would enable the church-state separation lawyers to challenge these bogus notions and try to force judges to rule on the actual merits of a case?

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