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New Jersey humanists challenge 'under God' pledge in schools

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An anonymous family of New Jersey atheists is asking a state judge to find that the words “under God” should be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, is nearly identical to one brought in Massachusetts by an unidentified family there. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court could rule in that case any day.

“Public schools should not engage in an exercise that tells students that patriotism is tied to a belief in God,” said David Niose, an attorney for the American Humanist Assn. who is working both cases.

The plaintiffs in both cases belong to the association, which includes atheists and agnostics. 

Defenders of keeping the pledge unchanged say it’s unfortunate the plaintiffs are trying to silence everyone else.

“People have a right to opt of the pledge if they have an objection to it,” Eric Rassbach, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.

His group is supporting the school district in Massachusetts but isn't yet involved in the New Jersey case.

“Dissenters don’t get the right to decide everything for everyone else,” Rassbach said.

The cases in state courts follow unsuccessful challenges of the “under God” phrase in federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t directly weighed in on the issue’s merits, but several lower courts have rejected the argument that the phrase violates the Constitution’s ban on government-established religion.

In New Jersey, the issue is whether a law requiring recitation of the pledge in schools violates the state constitution’s guarantee that people in public schools won’t be be discriminated against on the basis of religion.

The father, mother and child who brought the suit say that they do not believe in the existence of God and that the pledge unfairly makes students who opt not to say it seem like second-class citizens.

The New Jersey lawsuit contends that humanists are viewed unfavorably in the U.S. and that a child's refusal to participate in a patriotic exercise will draw scorn from classmates. The child in the lawsuit has been harassed in school because of the child's atheist beliefs, the suit says.

"The current pledge practice marginalizes atheist and humanist kids as something less than ideal patriots, merely because they don't believe the nation is under God,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Assn.

The Massachusetts lawsuit was also filed anonymously by atheists, including three students.

The New Jersey lawsuit says: “The pledge's ‘under God’ language sends a message to public school children, and indeed to the general public, that the government favors belief in God.”

The phrase was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 during the early years of the Cold War as the U.S. sought to distinguish itself from the Soviet Union. Atheists say government could find less demeaning ways to honor its religious heritage.

The New Jersey family and the humanist group’s attorney also say countries that are more secular tend to be safer and more advanced than those with strong religious identities.

Rassbach said the group backed off the “ugly argument” in Massachusetts but was making it again in New Jersey. “Coincidence doesn’t prove causation,” he said.

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