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Atheists pledge a suit on Utah law

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Local atheists are pledging to keep the Pledge of Allegiance out of Utah schoolrooms.

Members of the Salt Lake Valley Atheists are considering a lawsuit against a 3-year-old state law requiring all Utah elementary school students to recite the pledge. They are also gearing up to fight a bill that would make it mandatory for all Utah junior high and high school students.

It is the phrase "one nation under God" — inserted into the Pledge in 1954 — that rankles atheists. "It ties patriotism to religion, and I don't believe in that," says Mike Rivers, the Utah director of American Atheists. If legislators want schoolchildren to be more patriotic they should fund enhanced history classes, he says.

Utah Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, has filed a bill requiring a recitation of the pledge "at least once a week" in secondary schools. "Nobody is going to order you to say it," Buttars explains. "If you don't want to stand up, nobody will say a thing to you.

"I have a real problem, in fact I'm totally amazed," he adds, "that anyone in this country would be opposed to having our American kids say the Pledge of Allegiance. Like it or not, this is a Christian country. It was founded on Christian principles."

Buttars predicts the battle over the pledge will be "hell and high water."

The Utah Legislature passed the elementary school pledge law in 2000. It includes a provision allowing students to remain silent during the pledge if they have a letter from their parents. The provision was added as a way to skirt a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision that schoolchildren cannot be forced to say the pledge or salute the flag if either conflicts with their religious beliefs.

But opting out of the mandatory pledge isn't good enough, says Rivers. "The school might as well take a scarlet A and put it on them." Children are subjected to peer pressure and stigma, he argues. The law has "isolated the child that's opting out," he says.

It is the stigmatizing aspect of the required pledge that might be the basis of a lawsuit, says Rivers, rather than the unconstitutionality of the "one nation under God" clause. This strategy would avoid the issues raised last summer when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the phrase violates the First Amendment. The ruling applied only to elementary schools; the pledge was not ruled unconstitutional in other settings.

Implementation of the ruling was suspended, pending a petition for rehearing. The ruling, if it were to go into effect, would apply only to the states that make up the 9th Circuit, which does not include Utah.

Rivers says that two members of the Salt Lake Valley Atheists are potential plaintiffs in the yet-to-be-filed lawsuit.

Salt Lake City First Amendment lawyer Brian Barnard, who has "serious questions as to the constitutionality of the mandatory pledge in its current form," says that at this point, with the 9th Circuit Court's ruling up in the air, filing a lawsuit in Utah would likely have "marginal or no chance of success." Sometimes, he says, "such a suit creates 'bad law,' which may hinder later attacks."

As for Buttars' bill requiring the pledge in secondary schools, both the Salt Lake Valley Atheists and Atheists of Utah plan to organize a letter-writing and phone-calling blitz.

"The Legislature pays little attention when atheists testify as such," notes Utah Atheists president Charles Johnson, "so it would be best if a great many citizens were to write letters and testify on their own behalf."

The House recites the pledge each morning of the general session, and there is a resolution in the Senate to have the senators recite the pledge.

The bill "strikes us as being simply legislative grandstanding," much like last year's legislation requiring the posting of "In God we trust" in Utah schools, he adds. "No one can believe that these actions have any real effect on students, except to make those students who object to the recital stand out and be ridiculed by the majority of students, most of whom are either theists or people who have never given the matter much thought.

"It seems to be a case of the majority simply wanting to show the remainder of us that they are the majority and that majority rejects us and our thinking," he argues.

Buttars sees it differently. "The God haters and values haters have let the values American has stood for slide right off the table. It's time to stop."

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com