A New Jersey judge has rejected a state constitutional challenge to a law that requires schools to lead the Pledge of Allegiance each day.
The state law was challenged by a self-described humanist family in the Matawan-Aberdeen school district who objected to daily recitings of the Pledge and its inclusion of the words “under God.”
The challenge brought by the family identified in court papers as the Does was based on two provisions of the New Jersey Constitution.
The Does say their child’s humanist beliefs mean their unidentified child feels excluded when the Pledge is recited in the Matawan-Aberdeen district. The family argued that state’s Pledge law draws an impermissible line between atheists and those who believe in God.
In a Feb. 4 decision in American Humanist Association v. Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, New Jersey Superior Court Judge David F. Bauman of Monmouth County granted summary judgment to the school district.
Bauman noted that New Jersey’s own 1947 constitution has several explicit references to “Almighty God,” and thus “the very constitution under which plaintiffs seek redress for perceived atheistic marginalization could itself be deemed unconstitutional,” which would be “absurd.”
The judge agreed with the view of many other courts that the Pledge, as amended by Congress in 1954 to include “under God,” is primarily a patriotic exercise, not a religious one. He said that under New Jersey’s Pledge-recitation law, “any child is free to refrain from the Pledge for any reason, whether it be religious, political, moral, or any other principle.”
There was no evidence the Matawan-Aberdeen district was forcing the Does’ child to recite the Pledge, Bauman said. The judge said in a footnote that he considered “potentially problematic” a school board policy requiring parents to be informed when a child refuses to recite the Pledge and for the parents to submit in writing the reasons for a child’s conscientious objection. But there was no evidence the policy was being applied to the Does, he said, and the school district filed a brief with the court indicating that it was revising the board policy to delete those requirements.
“Expunging the words ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance does not and will not serve a public need because the overriding purpose of public education in public schools is to foster, not restrict, ideas without requiring adherence to those ideas,” Judge Bauman concluded.
The decision is in line with other recent rulings about school observances of the Pledge.
The highest court of Massachusetts in 2014 upheld that state’s law requiring daily recitations of the Pledge in schools against a similar state constitutional challenge, and in 2010 a federal appeals court upheld a New Hampshire law that requires schools to set aside time for the Pledge.
The U.S. Supreme Court considered a challenge to “under God” in the Pledge in 2004 in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, but it disposed of that case on procedural grounds.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.