A Monmouth County, N.J., lawsuit alleging that the words
in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the rights of an atheist schoolchild and sought to have them stricken has been dismissed.
For a local high school senior, that was good news indeed.
Samantha Jones, 18, who attends Highland Regional High School; her parents; and two of her siblings had intervenor status in American Humanist Association v. Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District.
The decision "does affirm our right to say under God in the Pledge of Allegiance," Jones said. "We all have the right to remain silent, but nobody has the right to silence anybody else."
The suit is part of a campaign by the American Humanist Association to take under God out of the pledge; its leaders argue that portraying belief in a god as synonymous with patriotism implies that nonbelievers are less patriotic. They have also noted that those words were not put in the pledge until 1954, during the Cold War.
"We will continue to work toward ensuring equal rights for all Americans who are good without a god," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the association.
The organization did not say whether it intended to appeal.
In a similar case brought by the association, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last year that reciting the pledge as is did not discriminate against atheist and humanist children and that the practice was a political exercise, not a religious one.
In his decision Wednesday, Superior Court Judge David Bauman said recitation of the pledge was a secular, rather than religious, exercise. He also said the child in question, who has not been identified, was not being forced to say under God and could choose to not recite the pledge.
New Jersey law calls for the pledge to be recited in schools, but the U.S. Supreme Court has held that individuals can opt to not say it.
"We are pleased that the judge accepted our legal arguments and are confident that Judge Bauman's well-reasoned, thoughtful opinion will be upheld should there be an appeal," said David Rubin, attorney for Matawan-Aberdeen.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represented the Jones family and the Knights of Columbus in the case and was also involved in the Massachusetts case. The American Legion was also a party to the New Jersey lawsuit.
Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, called Bauman's decision "a win for the Pledge of Allegiance and another loss for these plaintiffs." He said the pledge suits "invite social division."
The Becket Fund, a Washington public interest law firm, also successfully argued the Hobby Lobby case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that certain privately held corporations did not have to pay for employees' contraception under the Affordable Care Act if doing so was against the employers' religious beliefs.
Jones, a Blackwood resident and a Christian, said the words under God were important because they reminded government that it could not take away people's basic human rights, because it did not create them.
She did not have to testify, but taking an activist role "was an awesome experience," she said, "to see firsthand how this whole thing works."
Jones said the experience convinced her even more than before, "Don't bash anyone because they believe in something different."
She said she would extend that to the atheist student in the lawsuit. Since getting involved, she said, she has called some people to task for making fun of the student's position.
On her part, she said, "there's no hate, no dislike toward that family at all. I respect [their opinion]. I just don't agree."