On the Legal Front: Will We Succeed in Challenging

by Bill Burgess

The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center has been very active this year defending the legal rights of humanists across the country, thanks to the help of our legal intern for the spring, Monica Miller, and our team of 30 pro-bono attorneys working across the country. Here’s just a brief summary of our recent legal activities.

The legal center is assisting AHA President David Niose in a case he has filed on behalf of humanist parents and their children in a state court in Massachusetts challenging the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words “under God,” in public schools as violation of the equal protection clause of the Massachusetts constitution because it amounts to discrimination against humanists and atheists.

We’ve investigated the practices of several local city and county governments in Florida after receiving complaints that those governments were beginning their public sessions with prayers in which those in attendance are asked to stand and participate. The prayers in several of the jurisdictions were expressly Christian in nature. The legal center sent letters to these jurisdictions informing them of the AHA’s view as to the unconstitutionality of these prayers, which appear to endorse Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause, and requesting that the practice be stopped immediately. We will monitor the future actions of these governments to ensure that they comply with the law.

The legal center received a complaint from the parent of an elementary school student who had been sent home from school with a flier from the “Good News Club” advertising evangelical Christian meetings for students to be held immediately after school. The school had not previously sent fliers home with students from any outside groups. The legal center sent a letter to the school’s principal and superintendant informing them of the requirement under the First Amendment that if the school allows religious groups to send home fliers it must allow secular groups to do so as well, and also letting them know that they are free to choose not to permit any outside groups to send home fliers.

We’ve received complaints from citizens in several states about their local governments posting large “In God We Trust” displays in their public buildings at the behest of a national Christian organization called In God We Trust – America, Inc. We are preparing to contact each of these jurisdictions to inform them that such displays amount to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and our particular concern that all citizens, including humanists and other nontheists, should feel welcome in the places where so much of the day-to-day business of our democracy is conducted at the local level.

In addition, we’re assisting a secular student group at a military service academy which has been denied many of the privileges given to the Christian groups on campus, and a federal prisoner who identifies as a humanist and who has been denied an annual special meal which is provided to any religious prisoner on a date important to his or her religion. 

I’m excited about the increase in legal activity that the Appignani Humanist Legal Center has been experiencing in just three months, and I look forward to new opportunities in the coming year. We will continue to be vigilant in defending the separation of church and state and equality rights for humanists at the national and local levels. I invite any AHA member who thinks that they may have encountered a violation of these legal rights to contact the legal center at legal@americanhumanist.org.  We also invite any attorneys who would like to cooperate in helping the legal center on a pro bono basis from time to time to contact us.

The American Humanist Association would like to thank the Louis J. Appignani Foundation, the Anderson-Rogers Foundation, The Herb Block Foundation, and the Charlotte and Elick Lindon Foundation for their generous support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center in 2011.

Bill Burgess is the legal coordinator of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. He is a member of the bars of the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the state of Florida. He received his J.D. from Georgetown University in 2000 and a B.A. in international relations from the College of William and Mary in 1997.