N.J. case puts pledge, religion in spotlight
Blackwood teenager Samantha Jones grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the words under God, and she is willing to go to court for the right to keeping saying those words.
Blackwood teenager Samantha Jones grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the words
, and she is willing to go to court for the right to keeping saying those words.
"This is about our freedom as Americans," Jones said.
The people who want to see those words taken out of the pledge would say the same thing.
Jones, an 18-year-old Highland Regional High School senior, her parents, and her younger sister and brother learned this week that they have been granted intervenor status in a Superior Court case that contends that reciting the pledge violates the rights of atheists and humanists.
The case, American Humanist Association v. Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District, seeks to have the Monmouth County court declare that those rights are being violated and to have schools desist from having the pledge recited in its current form.
David Rubin, lawyer for the Matawan Aberdeen district, said the district should not be held liable for what is required by state law. State law calls reciting the pledge. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling has said students can choose to refrain.
In a similar case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in May that teacher-led recitation of the pledge did not discriminate against atheist and humanist children, and that the practice was a political exercise and not a religious one.
Humanist Association legal director David Niose said the New Jersey case involves a child harassed for being an atheist. He declined to identify the family.
Having the pledge recited en masse with the under God phrase, he said, promotes anti-atheist bias and sends the message that "true patriots are believers, and atheists are second-class citizens."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based public interest law firm, fought to keep under God in the Massachusetts case and won intervenor status in the New Jersey case for the Blackwood family and the Knights of Columbus.
It also successfully argued the recent Hobby Lobby case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that certain privately held corporations did not have to pay under the Affordable Care Act for employees' contraception if that was against the employers' religious beliefs.
Becket legal counsel Diana Verm said the words in the pledge are "a statement of our country's political philosophy. It's not a prayer."
Those words signify the belief that "our rights are secure because they don't come from the state," Verm said. "They come from a power higher than the state."
Samantha Jones agrees.
"I've recited the pledge since preschool," she said. "To me, those words sum up the values that make our country great."
Jones said she was very excited when her family members learned Monday that they were being allowed to participate in the case. They are her father, Frank, an insurance broker; mother, Michele, a homemaker; brother, Frank Jr., 14, a freshman at Highland; and sister, Halle, 9, who attends Gloucester Township Elementary School.
She said the Becket Fund reached out to her family.
"We were more than willing to stand up for this right," she said.
Jones, who described her family as Christian, said atheists have the right to not recite the pledge. She added, "They don't have the right to silence everyone else."
If she has to testify, she said, she will be a little nervous but mostly excited.
"This is me standing up for what I believe in," she said. "That's how I was raised."