Massachusetts’ highest court is considering whether the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools discriminates against atheist students. Anonymous atheist parents asked the state’s Supreme Court on Sep. 4, 2013 to ban pledge recitation statewide because they contend the phrase “under God” violates the rights of students who do not believe in God.
Attorney David Niose, representing the parents and the American Humanist Association (AHA), stated that “children every morning are pledging their national unity and loyalty in an indoctrinating format, in a way that validates God belief as truly patriotic and actually invalidates atheism.” Niose argued that some children are therefore “denied meaningful participation in this patriotic exercise.”
Several failed challenges to the Pledge have been made in the past, including Elk Grove Unified School District, et al. v. Newdow, which reached the US Supreme Court in 2004. However, previous cases have been made on the grounds that the Pledge violates the Establishment (of religion) Clause in the US Constitution. The current Massachusetts case, however, claims that recitation of the Pledge violates the guarantee of equal rights under the state constitution.
Eric Rossbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty arguing on behalf of the defendents (the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District), stated that the plaintiffs are “grasping at straws… They know they would lose again if they tried it under the First Amendment, so now they are trying a new tack.” Rossbach stated after the hearing that the Pledge is “not a religious statement… no one is getting up there and saying a prayer when they say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Although a daily “group recitation” of the Pledge is required in Massachusetts schools by state law, a Supreme Judicial Court ruling in 1977 declared that teachers and students cannot be disciplined for refusing to take part. That presents a challenge for the plaintiffs, says Boston College Law School church-state law expert Greg Kalscheur: “Participation is voluntary. Nobody can actually be forced to participate. So I think it’s a challenging argument to make and to sustain.”
Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the AHA, argues that recitation of the Pledge is still discriminatory, even if it is not, in effect, compulsory: “The opt-out itself is exclusionary and unpleasant… Children are left with a bad choice: either stand up and recite something against your beliefs, or opt out and be ostracized.”
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 and was included in the US Flag Code, which became law in 1942. The words “under God,” however, were added in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said at the signing: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”