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New Jersey teen to join fight against atheists over 'Under God' in pledge
New Jersey parents Frank and Michele Jones and their three children, including high school senior Samantha Jones, at right in photo, have taken a stand against the American Humanist Associations attempt to prevent public school students from saying one nation under God when they say the Pledge of Allegiance. - photo by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

The continuing back-and-forth over the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance is getting a new group of participants: three New Jersey public school students and their parents, all of whom want a court to reject efforts to strike the words "under God" added 60 years ago.

On Sept. 18, a New Jersey court granted Samantha Jones, a 17-year-old senior at Highlands Regional High School, and her siblings, the right to intervene in a case brought by the American Humanist Associationagainst the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District on behalf of an anonymous family. Jones lives in another school district.

According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, AHA legal director David Niose said the words "under God" put nonbelievers in a bind. "Having the pledge recited en masse with the under God phrase, (Niose) said, promotes anti-atheist bias and sends the message that 'true patriots are believers, and atheists are second-class citizens.’ ”

But Jones said she has a right to recite the pledge, regardless of how it makes others feel.

"When I stand up, put my hand over my heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance, I am recognizing that my rights come from God, not from the government," Jones said in a statement issued by the family's law firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "If anyone wants to remain silent, that is their right. But it is not their right to silence me."

The Becket Fund is also representing the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal group which also gained the right to participate in the case.

"The Pledge is not a religious creed or a prayer. It is a statement of our nation’s political philosophy that rights come not from the state but from something higher — as our Declaration of Independence puts it, 'Nature’s God.' We are confident that the court will uphold the right to say the Pledge in its entirety," said Kristina Arriaga, Becket Fund executive director.

In addition to filing lawsuits, the AHA has stepped up secular efforts to ban recitation of the pledge in public schools with a campaign encouraging students to sit out the pledge until it is banned. The websiteDon' provides resources for parents to discuss the pledge with their children and how students can report harassment or bullying if they decide to remain seated during recitation of the pledge.

But pledge opponents, such as atheist physician Dr. Michael Newdow, have not fared well in court. In May, a unanimous Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected an AHA lawsuit against the pledge.

According to a Becket Fund summary of the case, "the court ruled that no child must be silenced from reaffirming timeless American ideals because others disagree. Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, writing for the unanimous court, stated, 'Here there is no discriminatory classification for purposes of (Massachusetts) article 106 — no differing treatment of any class or classes of students based on their sex, race, color, creed or national origin.

Caught in the middle of the latest AHA case is the New Jersey school district, noted reporter Billy Hallowell of The Blaze: "The school district’s lawyer, though, said that officials are merely following state law, which requires daily recitation of the pledge. While the district offers the recitation in its seven elementary, middle and high schools, students are not required to participate."

According to the AHA, a May 2014 survey found 34 percent of Americans say they want "under God" excised. The poll, commissioned by the AHA, was done in response to a survey on the same question by Lifeway Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The Lifeway poll found just 8 percent supported removing "Under God" from the pledge.

"Unlike the Lifeway Research poll, the survey done (for the AHA) included a brief description of the history of the Pledge of Allegiance, including the information that 'under God' was only added as recently as 1954 in response to the Cold War and that some Americans feel that the Pledge should focus on unity rather than religion," the AHA stated.

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner