The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center announced last year that it had filed a lawsuit against the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District in Monmouth County, New Jersey. If successful, the lawsuit would put an end to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the state’s public schools.
Much like their (failed) lawsuit in Massachusetts, the plaintiffs were anonymous (presumably to avoid harassment from Christians) and the argument was all about discrimination. It wasn’t about removing “Under God.” Rather, they were arguing that reciting the Pledge itself went against the state’s constitution and that ritual should stop immediately.
The AHA’s New Jersey lawsuit said:
By affirming that the United States is one nation “under God,” the daily classroom Pledge recitation directly contradicts the religious beliefs and principles of the plaintiffs. Jane Doe, John Doe, and Doechild embrace a Humanist world view and do not believe that any God exists or that any country is “under God.” Despite this, on a daily basis the Defendants public schools assert, through an official, school-sponsored patriotic exercise, that in fact the Does’ religious views are wrong.
Although the Does have no desire to evangelize their Humanism and atheism, they strongly desire to be treated equally, not as second-class citizens, by their government and school system.
A few months later, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (a conservative Christian legal group) announced that Samantha Jones, a New Jersey high school student, would be joining the legal fight against the AHA:
“When I stand up, put my hand over my heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance, I am recognizing that my rights come from God, not from the government,” said Samantha Jones, a senior at Highland Regional High School. “If anyone wants to remain silent, that is their right. But it is not their right to silence me.”
As I’ve said before, Jones’ comments about how the Pledge helps her recognize that her “rights come from God” actually proved the AHA’s point. This is a religious Pledge and that’s precisely why it shouldn’t be a mandatory part of the school day. Furthermore, no one was silencing her. Even if the AHA won, Jones could still say the Pledge whenever she wanted to. No one was taking that away from her. (It’s the same silly argument Christians use regarding prayer in schools. They act like the Supreme Court decision ending school-sponsored daily Bible readings took away their right to read the Bible. It didn’t. Students can read it and pray all they want. A teacher or administrator or coach just can’t lead those prayers.)
When oral arguments were heard in November, Judge David Bauman said there was no evidence of the atheist student being “bullied, ostracized or in any way mistreated.” That was similar to what justices said in the Massachusetts case.
But Bauman also admitted that the district policy — that you better have a good reason (and it needs to be in writing) not to stand up for the Pledge — was clearly over the top.
“I’m so grateful the court decided that kids like me shouldn’t be silenced just because some people object to timeless American values,” Samantha Jones, a senior at Highland Regional High School, said in a statement.
“Today the Pledge continued its long winning streak in court, and the atheist activists continued their losing streak,” Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “But do we have to keep playing this game? It would be much less divisive for our society if those opposed to the Pledge would stop trying to silence those who disagree with them.”
That’s a straight-up lie since no one is trying to silence Christians. If the roles were switched and the Pledge including a line about how we’re a nation “under no God,” I promise you the same Christians would be complaining about how their rights are under attack.
Earlier today, the AHA announced that it wouldn’t be appealing Bauman’s decision. The Becket Fund, as expected, is doing a victory lap:
“I’m so grateful to know that I will be able to continue reciting the Pledge in peace,” said Samantha Jones, a senior at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J. “Ever since I was little, I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance because it sums up the values that make our country great. The phrase ‘under God’ protects all Americans — including atheists — because it reminds the government that it can’t take away basic human rights because it didn’t create them.”
“The American Humanist Association’s challenge turned out to be all bark and no bite,” said Diana Verm, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “This is why it is so crucial for brave citizens like Samantha to stand up for their rights in court — sometimes all it takes to stop a bully is for one person to stand up. The Court was right that the Pledge doesn’t exclude anyone, but dissenters have the right to sit it out. That’s how we’ve always dealt with disagreements in our society.”
I repeat what I said before: If the shoe was on the other foot, and the Pledge was explicitly godless, Christian groups would be fighting for the chance to get in front of a judge to stop recitation of it, even if they had the opting of sitting it out.
The AHA hasn’t made any public statements today about this case, but I’ll post an update if/when they do.
***Update***: The AHA has responded (via email):
For a number of reasons we and our clients decided not to appeal this particular case. However, the fight for equal treatment of atheists is far from over. Just as the gay rights movement saw legal setbacks in its early days, only to ultimately succeed, such will be the case with atheist equality.
Governmental promotion of god-belief, particularly in a public school setting in a patriotic context, is invidious toward atheists, and we will keep fighting on that issue until the problem is remedied.
David Niose — AHA legal director
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)