Tuesday, March 06, 2012

"Under God" and the Discrimination Argument: Preparing a Response

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, somebody has finally filed a lawsuit challenging “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance – not on the basis of the First Amendment separation of church and state, but because of the discriminatory element of equating atheism with secession, tyranny, and injustice.

(See: Family Sues Action-Boxborough Schools to Drop Under God from Pledge of Allegiance)

This may be the first of many.

I want you to imagine the day in which a Massachusetts judge declares that a government requirement to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in a state’s public schools violates the state’s prohibition against religious discrimination.

I want you to imagine that day . . . and I would like you to prepare for it.

The news will explode. The religious and political right is going to explode with outrage and indignation. If they are able to dominate the public discussion on this topic, then it will also become a political weapon. It will be used as a fundraising bonanza to help ensure that politicians who would oppose such “activist” judges are not elected.

How effective those tactics will be will depend, in part, about the quality and quantity of our own response to defend that decision.

I have written quite a bit on this subject over the years. However, at the very basic level, I would like you to recruit a group of like-minded friends to take action on that day and post responses to the most likely claims that the opposition will make when such a decision is made.

I can give you what I suspect will be the three most common claims – and three sound-bite style responses.

(1) The Choice Argument

Opponents of that decision will likely claim that the Pledge is not discriminatory because atheists and others are not required to say it. They are not punished for refusing to recite the Pledge.

Response 1: I have to assume that you would also argue that a pledge of allegiance to "one WHITE nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" – recited in schools every day – is not racist if black students are allowed to remain seated.

Response 2: Remaining seated while others pledge allegiance – that just reinforces the message that people who do not believe in God are not patriots – that they have no allegiance to their country.

(2) The Neutrality Claim

Some opponents will simply deny that "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance takes a side on whether belief in God is a good thing.

Response: I have to assume that you also think that the Pledge of Allegiance is also neutral when it comes to liberty and justice for all – that it is not claiming that those are good things either."

(3) The Patriotic Claim

A common claim that one hears and even sees in judicial opinions is that the Pledge of Allegiance is not a religious exercise, it is a patriotic exercise.

Response: That's true. That's the problem. It is a patriotic exercise that says that true patriotism requires a belief in God. It discriminates against those who do not believe in God by teaching young children that those people lack patriotism.

And, on the positive side, the claim that the Pledge is discriminatory says:

The intent and the effect of putting "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is to create an environment hostile to atheists in general, and atheists who seek to run for public office in specific. Surveys show that atheists are the least electable group in this country - that's not much of a mystery when the government itself is involved in a campaign to keep atheists out of elected office.

These arguments have to get out there - they have to get out into the public debate - even as those who support "under God" try as hard as they can to shout down and drown out any criticism.

I would invite you to gather with your friends in whatever atheist clubs you belong to and can reach to be ready to respond if such a decision should ever make it into the news.


Mike Gage said...

Very well said. I look forward to the day when I might be able to write a letter to the editor and/or a blog post about this.

Zerotarian said...

I'm a member of Boston Atheists, so I shared this on our Facebook page to get the ideas some local exposure.