For Courageous Students: the AHA Has Your Back

If America’s Supreme Court justices could have spent a day this spring at Valencia High School, they would have seen decades of legal theory debunked in minutes. Specifically, what transpired in that California school would have demonstrated to the justices that the legal concept known as “ceremonial deism” is based on entirely false assumptions.

Like other schools around the country, the class of Barry Gardner, a health teacher at Valencia, starts the day with the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. One morning, however, a freshman student (we’ll call him Justin), decided to assert his constitutional right to sit out the Pledge exercise. Gardner, regrettably, disapproved of this conduct and confronted Justin, demanding an explanation. Though the law does not require students to provide reasons for opting out, Justin gratuitously explained the he objected to the “under God” wording. Gardner responded by calling Justin “crazy” and questioning him about his religious beliefs. Mocked and humiliated, Justin was ordered to sit outside the classroom during Pledge recitation if he wished to opt out.

Fortunately, Justin found the American Humanist Association and got the support he needed. The AHA’s Boycott the Pledge page contains information about students’ rights, with links to the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC), which stands ready to give students the legal backup they need if schools don’t respect those rights. The AHLC wrote a letter to Justin’s school, and a few days later the school responded appropriately: “We assure you that the District has no policy, written or stated, that requires students to stand for the Pledge,” the school district wrote, adding that teachers “will be reminded that students may freely express their right not to participate in any Pledge exercise at their school.”

Justin’s story illustrates why the underlying basis of so-called “ceremonial deism,” a legal concept used to justify governmental religious references, is a total fallacy.  Justice William Brennan was the first to use the term in a Supreme Court opinion, in his dissent in the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly. Brennan suggested that such references really aren’t religious. Statements such as “under God” in the Pledge, he argued, “are protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” The term “ceremonial deism” was actually invented back in 1962 by Yale Law School dean Eugene Rostow, who said references are “so conventional and uncontroversial as to be constitutional.”

With no disrespect to Rostow or Justice Brennan, I think Justin might disagree. Having objected to “under God,” Justin subsequently got badgered, disciplined, and interrogated about his religion. Obviously, Justin’s teacher Mr. Gardner—and countless others like him—don’t see “under God” as having lost its religious significance. If anything, many people view such use of God, conflated with patriotism in this manner, as magnifying the importance of the theistic reference—as Justin and other students like him have found out the hard way.

Since launching the Pledge Boycott, the American Humanist Association has received numerous inquiries every week from students with stories like Justin’s. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the “under God” wording is far from uncontroversial. From the standpoint of atheists and humanists, there are many adjectives that could describe the “under God” wording—unnecessary, misleading, theistic, pandering, insulting, inaccurate—but harmless and uncontroversial are not among them.

We frequently hear from children who are being mistreated due to adult misunderstandings relating to the Pledge. A seventh grader in Jacksonville, Florida, was recently suspended for two days for opting out of the Pledge—until we intervened and reversed the suspension. In Pennsylvania, a school nurse reportedly refused to treat a child who didn’t stand for the Pledge. All across the country, kids who opt out are accused of being “disrespectful” (the irony, is that they are being disrespected for simply giving thoughtful consideration to a rote exercise that marginalizes them and discredits their views on an important religious question: the existence of a divinity).

We are proud to say that the AHA has helped these students and many others like them. As you can see at our Pledge Boycott page, we are giving them the resources they need to stand up to authority. When students have met resistance from school officials for attempting to opt out of the Pledge—and it’s happened from coast to coast, in red states and blue—we’ve sent letters defending the fundamental free speech right of nonparticipation.

The AHA Pledge Boycott is proving to be an important activist tool. In a country where critical thinking is sadly lacking and where patriotism is too often defined in theistic terms, the act of politely but firmly refusing to take part in an exercise that indoctrinates children into a God-and-country mindset is exquisitely subversive. If reason predominated in American society, a child opting out of the Pledge would be a non-event, but instead we see such actions met with ignorant hostility. America’s social order is apparently so delicate, so unstable, that a young person refraining from rote recitation of a daily exaltation of nationalism—and let’s be honest, it amounts to little more than a loyalty oath—poses a genuine threat in the minds of many.

In our view, it is the Pledge dissenters who are the real patriots. And we’ve got their backs.