Lawsuits Aim to Take God, Prayer Out of Schools

Wednesday, 20 Aug 2014 03:13 PM

By Jennifer G. Hickey

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Jessica Andrews was surprised to learn the copy of the Pledge of Allegiance distributed to her daughter and other students at Chukker Creek Elementary School in Aiken, South Carolina, did not include two important words – "under God."

She brought the issue to the attention of Principal Amy Gregory, who explained the omission.

"In order to assist her new students with our morning announcements, a teacher made copies of the pledge and national anthem for her class," Gregory told Fox News' Todd Starnes in an email. "She cut and pasted these from a website and in doing so, this line was omitted."

In that case, the absence of God was unintentional and not the result of any effort to secularize the Pledge of Allegiance. There are, however, several ongoing lawsuits in school districts across the nation with the intent of removing God and prayer from school.

For example, the American Humanist Association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center recently sent a letter to officials of the Hall County School District in Gainesville, Georgia, on behalf of a "concerned citizen" who objected to coaches of a high school football team joining players in prayer.

The Aug. 12 letter contends participation in prayer is a violation of the Establishment Clause and demands the "coaching staff cease leading, participating in, or encouraging team prayer, and that the school remove all Bible verses and other religious messages from team documents and related materials."

According to Monica Miller, an attorney with the legal center, the simple participation by coaches constitutes sponsored prayer.

"The cases make clear that public schools must not even give the appearance of taking a position on religious belief, yet in this program we see ongoing biblical verses and references to religion. This evidences a complete disregard for the First Amendment rights of all students," Miller said in a statement.

Based in Washington, D.C., the American Humanist Association defends the rights of atheists, humanists, and other nonreligious Americans and has about 24,800 members.

The American Humanists also are behind a lawsuit filed in April against a New Jersey school district to remove "under God" from the pledge entirely. The group decided to go to court after the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District in Monmouth County refused to remove God from the pledge, which is recited daily in many schools, according to the association's website.

They claim reciting the pledge containing "God" violates students' rights under the New Jersey Constitution, which says that no one should be "discriminated against in the exercise of any civil or military right, nor be segregated in the militia or in the public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry, or national origin."

In early August, the school district received additional legal support from several local organizations for its motion to dismiss.

The American Legion Department of New Jersey and American Legion Post 176 in Matawan is seeking permission to participate in oral arguments, which are scheduled for Sept. 19, reports the Asbury Park Press.

In May, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against atheists who had challenged the legality of including "under God" in the pledge, according to Religion News Service.

The court found students' equal rights were not violated by teacher-led recitation of the pledge because it was voluntary.

All "students are presented with the same options; and one student’s choice not to participate because of a religiously held belief is, as both a practical and a legal matter, indistinguishable from another’s choice to abstain for a wholly different, more mundane, and constitutionally insignificant reason," said the court in its decision in Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District.

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