Are atheists unpatriotic? Most non-theists would say no and assert that loyalty to their country has nothing to do with belief, or nonbelief, in a deity. But by conducting a daily classroom exercise in which children recite the Pledge of Allegiance and include the phrase “under God,” schools in New Jersey and around the country are calling into question the patriotism of a local atheist family. Today, the American Humanist Association (AHA) took action against this discrimination of atheists and humanists and filed a lawsuit against a school district in New Jersey.
“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 AHA’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.”
By conducting an official, school-sponsored exercise that declares the United States to be “one nation under God,” schools are sending a message that belief in God and patriotism are linked. Failing to take part in reciting the Pledge could call into question the patriotism of a student. Regular recitation of the Pledge including the wording “under God” also violates the state constitution, which guarantees that no person shall be “segregated in the militia or in the public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.”
“All students should feel welcome in their public school, regardless of their faith,” said Monica Miller, an attorney for AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “The exercise of reciting ‘under God’ in the Pledge creates two classes of citizens in the public schools—those that believe in God, the true patriots, and those that do not.”
Atheists and humanists are just as dedicated to their country as theists. The original Pledge of Allegiance contained no reference to a deity, as the phrase “under God” was added only in 1954 at the height of McCarthyism. Furthermore, the public school district, as part of the state government, should not be favoring belief over nonbelief.
“It’s not the place of state governments to take a position on god-belief,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “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.”
To rectify the situation, the American Humanist Association originally sent a letter of complaint to the school district’s superintendent on February 19. However, because the school system declined to change the practice, AHA has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the local family. This case is similar to another awaiting a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, in which AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center is also standing up to discrimination against atheist schoolchildren who do not wish to recite “under God” in the Pledge. Whether in Massachusetts or New Jersey, across the country, the American Humanist Association is working to preserve our rights to live free from religion.