The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case that could jettison the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance in state public schools.
The Massachusetts Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit was initiated by atheist parents identified only as Jane and John Doe, who lost in a lower court before appealing. They are basing their suit on the equal protection clause of the state, not federal, constitution. Students are not required to cite the pledge.
If the state’s highest court sides with the family, then states with similar constitutions may soon face legal challenges from atheist groups as well.
A judge sided with the Acton Boxborough Regional School District when the case was initially heard by a lower court in 2012. The lower ruling stated that the Massachusetts’ school district had not violated any laws by leading students in the Pledge each morning.
The parents are represented by the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
“No child should go to school every day, from kindergarten to grade 12, to be faced with an exercise that defines patriotism according to religious belief,” the parents’ attorney, David Niosie, said. “If conducting a daily classroom exercise that marginalizes one religious group while exalting another does not violate basic principles of equal rights and nondiscrimination, then I don’t know what does. When we define patriotism with a religious truth claim — that the nation is in fact under a god — we define nonbelievers as less patriotic.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is supporting the school in the Massachusetts case, says the case has significant implications if the parents win.
“You would then see a rash of state court lawsuits challenging the pledge all over the country,” the Becket Fund’s Eric Rassbach told Religion News Service. “A win for us would completely avoid that unnecessary harm. And it would affirm that it is not discriminatory to the words ‘Under God’ in the pledge. There is disagreement, but there is not discrimination. That is what is at the heart of this – disagreement about what the government should do.”
The “Under God” phrase was added to the Pledge of Allegiance by many groups during the late 1940s and was officially adopted by Congress in 1954. Atheist groups began protesting the phrase, claiming that it amounted to government-supported religion.
Alliance Defending Freedom and Massachusetts Family Institute filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief in the case, supporting the school.
“Simply being offended by something does not make it a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution,” said Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “As the lower court found, the recitation is completely voluntary, and listening to the words ‘under God’ does not violate anyone’s constitutional freedoms.”
In a statement, ADF said the case could determine whether “all religious references, no matter how grounded in American history” must be “prohibited from the public square simply because someone could be offended by hearing them.”
In her ruling, state judge S. Jane Haggerty asserted that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge serves as an “acknowledgment of the Founding Fathers political philosophy, and the historical and religious traditions of the United States.”
Said Andrew Beckwith, executive vice president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, “The Pledge of Allegiance shouldn’t be banned merely because someone who is not even required to recite it feels offended. The Pledge unites Americans. The court should uphold the lower court’s ruling and refuse to divide Americans by silencing a voluntary exercise of patriotism just because a few people don’t like it.”
How do you feel about the “Under God” Pledge of Allegiance Massachusetts lawsuit?