A Humanist View
A Groundbreaking Legal Strategy: Protecting Atheist Rights
American Humanist Association President David Niose is the lead attorney in the Acton case and he is showing that utilizing "under God" language in daily patriotic ceremonies in Massachusetts public schools results in at least three serious problems.
First, it encourages and perpetuates discrimination against humanists, atheists, and other nonbelievers as a class of people, thereby directly harming the plaintiff. By daily affirming to children in a patriotic context that the country is "under God," the language strongly implies that nonbelievers are second-class citizens whose patriotism might be suspect, thereby building prejudice.
Second, it causes harm to non-participating nontheists. If people who disagree with the "under God" affirmation refuse to participate in the Pledge, they are unjustly denied all the advantages of participation, including the affirmation of patriotism, the civic experience, and the shared ceremony with classmates. They also risk being unjustly ostracized and labeled unpatriotic.
And third it causes harm to participating nontheists. If people who disagree with the "under God" affirmation nevertheless choose to participate in the Pledge, they inevitably help to validate religious language with which they disagree, thereby reinforcing prejudice against their own class.
And keep in mind that the lawsuit doesn't seek to stop patriotic exercises, but only to make those exercises inclusive and nondiscriminatory. Plaintiffs are requesting that the pre-1954 inclusive version of the Pledge be used once again in Massachusetts, and/or that other means of instilling patriotism be used, such as reading about important historical figures and events.
Does this case have a better chance of success than alternate cases?
Remember how same-sex marriage first became legal in the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, and in some sense, in California? It was successfully argued that a prohibition on same-sex unions violated gay and lesbian couples' right to equal protection under the law. This case uses a similar argument.
And in denying the defendants' earlier motion to dismiss, the judge on May 25, 2011 wrote in part: "The daily affirmation to children that America is 'one nation under God' cannot be characterized as just a meaningless ceremony, for in the context of daily public school recitation (accompanying the salute of the national flag) such a statement becomes the equivalent of official State doctrine—far from meaningless . . ."
And while this legal argument can be effective on the federal level, it is being launched on the state level where the judicial climate is sometimes more favorable to nontheist rights. So, while the religious right is arguing that separation of church and state is not a concept that can be found in the constitution, the American Humanist Association is bringing the concept of atheist-humanist equality into the U.S. legal scene. With it, we aim to stand up for our rights, and while doing so protect the rights of all Americans to believe, or not, as they wish.
Roy Speckhardt is the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. He is also a board member of the organization providing Humanists leadership training, the Humanist Institute, and an advisory board member of Secular Student Alliance. Follow him at http://twitter.com/americnhumanist.