Mass. Court to Rule on “Under God” in Pledge of Allegiance
The Massachusetts Supreme Court this month heard arguments on whether the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is a violation of the state’s equal rights laws.
The suit was brought by an anonymous atheist couple in 2010, claiming that the words “under God” in the pledge prevent their children from participating.
“This case presents an unpopular and wrongly vilified minority facing discrimination” by a state “promoting and propagating the idea that good patriots are God believers,” plaintiff attorney David Niose told the court, according to the Boston Herald.
An attorney for the Acton-Boxboro School District pointed out that the pledge is voluntary and told the court, “It’s an affirmation. It’s a statement of our political philosophy. A voluntary provision is about as unobtrusive as you can get.”
The plaintiffs’ claim was denied by a lower court last year.
Unification of Opinion
The Pledge of Allegiance is no stranger to litigation. In 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students could not be compelled to recite the pledge as a “compulsory unification of opinion,” and later added that they didn’t have to stand up, either.
After the words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954, more lawsuits came down the pipeline, but the Supreme Court has yet to rule definitively one way or another.
A similar case to the current one in Massachusetts reached the Supreme Court in 2004 after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the words “under God” were an endorsement of monotheism, but the high court dismissed the case due to lack of standing by the plaintiff, who was the non-custodial father of a public school student.
“It did not reach the merits of the dispute, but all the indications suggest that the Court would uphold the Pledge if it came to that,” says Christopher Lund, a professor at the Wayne State University Law School.
In 2011, the Supreme Court declined to take up a case in which the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that reciting the pledge in schools is okay as long as participation is voluntary.
Blessings Upon Us
So challenges to the ritual continue. “The Pledge is a problem, even though it’s only two words long and completely nondenominational,” says Lund. “The Regents Prayer held unconstitutional in Engle v. Vitale (1962)—’Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen’—was short (22 words long) and nondenominational too.”
In Engle, Jewish students successfully argued that the prayer went against their religious beliefs and the court held that by promoting the religious language at all the government was favoring a particular set of faiths.
“The school says students do not need to participate—so did the school in Engle v. Vitale, which exclude students who wanted to be excused. But none of that matters,” Lund says. “The point of Engle v. Vitale was that the government shouldn’t be religiously pressuring peoples’ children in the public schools.”
“That is what the Pledge does. The Pledge asks students to state a personal religious belief that this county is ‘under God,’” the professor says. “Atheists and agnostics cannot in good faith say that. But it also excludes polytheists, as well as monotheists who believe in God simply as first cause.”