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Acton Atheist Pledge Case Heads to Mass. Supreme Court

Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District will be heard at the commonwealth’s highest court on Wednesday, Sept. 4.

An atheist Acton family's challenge of the Pledge of Allegiance heads to Massachusetts Supreme Court this week.
An atheist Acton family's challenge of the Pledge of Allegiance heads to Massachusetts Supreme Court this week.

An anonymous Acton family’s challenge of the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools on the grounds that it violates students’ rights will go before the commonwealth’s highest court on Wednesday, Sept. 4.

The Acton family’s case, coming before the Massachusetts Supreme Court more than a year after it was heard in Middlesex Superior Court, argues that daily recitation of the pledge in schools violates the guarantee protection under the state’s equal rights laws.

Previously, David Niose, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs—named as Jane and John Doe to protect their children's identities—has said the religious content in the Pledge of Allegiance is discriminatory.

“If the Pledge of Allegiance said that we are one nation under Jesus you wouldn’t have any trouble understanding why Muslims, Hindus and Jews would feel that pledge discriminates against them,” said Niose. “It is really the same thing here. There has been a line drawn that includes those who believe the nation is one nation under God and if you’re not in that circle you’re excluded.”

According to a Religion News Service report on the Huffington Post, the focus on state laws in Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District is a bit of a departure from previous challenges of the pledge. 

From the report:

This change of tack in pledge challenges is modeled on a successful precedent laid down in the same court on gay marriage. In 2003, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in favor of a same-sex couple seeking the right to marry under the state’s equal rights laws. Their win led to similar successful challenges in other state courts — something that could happen here if judges rule for the plaintiffs.

“You would then see a rash of state court lawsuits challenging the pledge all over the country,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is arguing for the defendants. “A win for us would completely avoid that unnecessary harm. And it would affirm that it is not discriminatory to have the words ‘under God’ in the pledge.”

Challenges of the Pledge of Allegiance have been common after the addition of the phrase “under God” in 1954, which some argue violates the separation of church and state.

Leading a daily recitation the pledge in schools is law in Massachusetts, though many districts and educators consider participation voluntary. 

In a statement this spring, A-B Superintendent Stephen Mills said that "school districts have maintained throughout this lawsuit that we have not engaged in unlawful discrimination against its students, specifically with respect to their religious beliefs as was alleged in this case."

Your Turn: What do you think about required daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools? Is it appropriately Patriotic? Unconstitutional? Both? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. 

peric September 12, 2013 at 06:06 AM
Well, Justin, being of mixed race wasn't the only tough times people suffered then. Many families lost husbands, fathers, family members and friends from the war and struggled to survive and feed their families from the aftermath of these men fighting and dying for people like you and me to have a safe place to live free of tyrants and people who like to tell people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or do. I never even got to meet my grandfather on my mother's side due to him dying fighting for this country. I believe strongly in freedom of speech. Hence, the last time I checked, Freedom of Speech, is also in the Constitution. You say and I quote "I don't expect "believers" to like the idea of getting rid of "under god".... Really? So to you everyone in America should all do away with their beliefs because you are an Atheist? Maybe you should begrudgingly accept that not everyone has to think and speak and act exactly like you want them to.
Justin September 12, 2013 at 09:17 AM
Judy, You said "I thought we lived in a democracy and majority should rule". We live in a constitutional republic which has a judicial branch to protect the rights of the minority from the majority. The founding fathers were smart enough not to trust simple majority rule.
Justin September 12, 2013 at 09:33 AM
peric, I also believe strongly in freedom of speech, even though it means that horrible people can picket military funerals. It makes me sick that people do that, but I accept it as a consequence of American freedoms, just like you should accept that adding "under god" was unconstitutional. What you don't seem to understand is that modifying the pledge has absolutely nothing to do with free speech. Removing two words isn't equivalent to forcing people to "do away with" their beliefs. Removing "under god" impacts free speech exactly as much as adding "under god" did: zero. If, hypothetically, congress passed a bill which shortened the pledge to "I pledge allegiance to the United States of America, one nation under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" would that violate your free speech rights? Would you stop believing in flags because they took out "to the flag"?
peric September 12, 2013 at 10:24 AM
Justin. I do not believe that adding 'under god' was unconstitutional. Have a nice day.
Judy K Grelle September 14, 2013 at 12:10 AM
Just mincing words..... No one has addressed what type of currency are they paying their attorney with???????? Are we suppose to change our currency too? Or is that just not as offensive?

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