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. 

Rusty September 03, 2013 at 02:37 PM
"The religious content" ... So anything with the word God is religious content...OK Anything said by Reverend Martin Luther King should be taken out of our schools he was a reverend after all... Additionally anything that is taught to our children which is pagan in nature should also be taken out of school we can not offend believers so ....Any discussion of a solstice, ancient pagan sites like Stonehenge,Native American totem pole should be forbidden in schools. The discussion of the search for religious freedom by the Pilgrim's should not be discussed... searching for religious freedom...might have something to do with God. Of course we will have to discontinue the history segments in the 8th grade that are dedicated to the cultural and religious practices of middle eastern cultures... they will be discussing Buddha and Allah....We can not have that now can we. You see it would discriminate against my kids and if my kids feel left out the whole community is going to have to suffer.
Patrick Ball (Editor) September 03, 2013 at 02:49 PM
Rusty, I'm new to Acton and get getting acquainted with this issue. With that in mind, here's a question for you: Do you think there should be a distinction between a topic -- be it word "God," the defining of a term like "jihad" etc. -- coming up in the context of a lesson or discussion and the use of said religious content in a pledge the schools are required by law to recite every day? -pb
Rusty September 03, 2013 at 03:17 PM
Hey Patrick thanks for the question. The point I am trying to make is that there are many instances during everyday of life that we can feel discriminated against or left out or for lack of a better term have our feelings hurt. If the word God is offensive to the Doe family then I would imagine all of the examples that are listed above would also be offensive. Sarcasm aside... If the SJC rules that "under God" is unconstitutional, then yes I would also say that any lesson taught by the public schools that are State and Federally funded containing any reference to religious belief, ceremony and history also be removed from public school discourse as our children are required by law to attend ..
Patrick Ball (Editor) September 03, 2013 at 03:23 PM
Rusty, thanks for the response. I know questions about "the Pledge" have come up in many communities, not just Acton, so it's always interesting to hear what folks think about the issue. -pb
Rusty Yates September 04, 2013 at 12:10 AM
If 20% of the nation is non believer then four times out of five we say "Under God" and one fifth of the time we say "Under no god" I'm sure Christians will be happy with that because they are so giving and so understanding and so peaceful and so generous and tolerant and so fair minded and want everybody to have a turn.
Justin September 04, 2013 at 01:47 PM
Rusty, no one is asking for what you're claiming here. The complaint about the pledge is not equivalent to "you cannot make any reference to religion in public schools". Studying a religion (or history which contains references to religion) in an academic context is completely fine. The issue with the pledge is that when Eisenhower signed it into law, this is what he said: "From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty" Changing the pledge to include "under god" was unconstitutional, and it should be changed back.
Rusty September 04, 2013 at 04:22 PM
The suit is being brought forth on the legs of the states equal rights laws. No rights have been infringe upon. They have the right to say the pledge or not say the pledge. The addition of "under god" may have been unconstitutional and at some point may be removed. However, under the laws of the Commonwealth the rights of the individuals in this case have not been infringed. But lets say the rights are deemed to have been infringed by mentioning God in the Pledge of Allegiance....Why wouldn't the same blanket cover the mentioning of God, Allah, Buddah etc in the classroom... wouldn't the rights of these individuals be trampled on if they were to study the crusades? or other religious topics? I am not trying to pick a fight... I think this is extremely interesting and important to discuss.
Justin September 04, 2013 at 04:43 PM
Rusty, you may very well be right about the legal issues of the case. I'm just trying to explain why atheists are so annoyed by the pledge. There is a false narrative that atheists bring lawsuits because they believe that they have a right to never be offended. This is nonsense. The constitution doesn't protect people from being offended, and no atheist I know thinks it does. The idea that we want to abuse the legal system to never have to hear anything relating to religion is a straw man argument made up by the other side. These people are suing because they believe their children are being forced by the government to "proclaim their dedication to the Almighty" every morning as Eisenhower said. Mentions of religious ideas in an academic context are completely fine as long as it doesn't cross the line to government endorsement of religion. For example, a teacher saying "Muslims believe that Mohammed was a prophet" is fine, but a teacher saying "Mohammed was a prophet" isn't.
David Holland September 04, 2013 at 07:43 PM
The lawyers, of course, say that the anonymous claimants have children in the AB school system. Really? Prove it. I guess they won't reveal who that might be for fear that there would be an inquisition if they used their names. Or somehow the intolerant, "Love thy neighbor as thyself" crowd would retaliate against their children. Meanwhile this frivolity has cost the town 1/2 of a f.t.e. position when all the district is doing is following the state law.
peric September 05, 2013 at 09:46 AM
Another fine upstanding lawyer to represent whoever these cowards are that won't even show their face. Ever since the White House which has become the New Mosque came to be under Barrack Hu-sins, those who used to respect and fear this country now just want to downtrodden it down to their 3rd world level of no morals and hate. !
Judy K Grelle September 11, 2013 at 08:21 AM
How about all of the children/community that the Pledge of Allegiance does not offend? I do not understand why we need to be changing items that this Country was built on.. One question how is the Doe Family paying their lawyer? Because I am sure the do not use the USD, because our currency must offend them also.
Justin September 11, 2013 at 10:13 AM
Judy, which "item that this country was built on" are you referring to?
peric September 11, 2013 at 01:35 PM
@Justin. Your question is the reason we need to have the Pledge of Allegiance in our schools. When I was a child families went to church and had sit down family meals every week. We also said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, and learned how to be proud of our country and thankful to our soldiers who went to war to protect us from becoming a third world country. You know one where you have no rights. We still have freedom of speech here. It is not a dictatorship. No one makes the children say the Pledge in the classroom. If these people want to live in a dictatorship country where they have no freedom of speech they should not live in America. It is just sad that you should even have to ask such a question.
Justin September 11, 2013 at 02:30 PM
peric, I was asking for clarification because I wanted to know what she specifically meant by the word "items", which was ambiguous. She could have meant faith, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or the pledge itself, and I wanted to know which ones before responding. She clearly didn't mean separation of church and state, the founding principle that your side hypocritically disregards whenever it's convenient. Please explain how adding "under god" to the pledge in the 50's didn't violate the first amendment. The president that signed the change into law even admitted that the point was to make children proclaim this country's dedication to the Almighty every day.
peric September 11, 2013 at 03:44 PM
Because once again, Justin, who the public schools have failed to educate, and believe me I know, I used to be a teacher: We do still have freedom of speech in this country. I really don't care who you hate or what names you call me, I or no one else is making anyone say the words "under god". Yet, your side as you call yourself wants to dictate to us what we are "not allowed to say". The Pledge of Allegiance unites us as Americans, and if atheists do not want to say the word "god" they don't have to; yet you want to dictate of those of us who choose to say the word "god" that they are not allowed to.
Justin September 11, 2013 at 04:21 PM
peric, did adding "under god" in the 50's violate free speech? Of course not, because editing the pledge has nothing to do with free speech. Nothing could stop Christians from continuing to say the pledge in it's current form if it does change, just like nothing stops atheists from not saying "under god" now. I'll ask again: please explain how the bill that added "under god" was constitutional.
peric September 11, 2013 at 08:38 PM
Justin. I am just curious. Were you actually there in the 50's? I know I was not, so I am sorry I cannot speak for what was done in the 50's. What I do know is that people and families were much different in the 50's than they are now. People were church oriented and actually cared about each other. Kids actually went outside to play in their own yards and neighbors knew each other. Now, some sixty years later so many children come from broken homes and they are raised differently. it seems hate is more the norm than kindness toward one another nowadays. I believe in god, and I was actually married to an atheist. We accepted each other beliefs and agreed to disagree. He was not offended when other people said the word 'god' just as I was not offended when they did not say the the word 'god. What is bothersome here, and this is just me, is when someone feels they have the right to dictate and take something away from all people just because they do not like it. I was a teacher. No one is standing over the children and making them say 'under god'. In fact, these children have the option of going out of the classroom during the Pledge. Yet these people, whoever, they are feel they have the right to tell everyone what they are allowed to say. To me that is just not right. Personally, I think it would be great to do the Pledge of Allegiance both ways as it only takes a few minutes, and it would also teach children that it is okay for people to have different beliefs and agree to disagree.
Justin September 11, 2013 at 10:07 PM
No, I wasn't alive in the 50's, and being of mixed race, I'm glad I wasn't. More people might have gone to church back then, but let's not romanticize the era of segregation and McCarthyism too much. Atheists aren't suing because "someone feels they have the right to dictate and take something away from all people just because they do not like it". Atheists are suing because the bill which added "under god" to the pledge was unconstitutional, and it's the job of the judicial branch to overturn unconstitutional legislation. I don't expect believers to like the idea of getting rid of "under god", but if they support our system of government, they should begrudgingly accept that adding it was a mistake.
Judy K Grelle September 12, 2013 at 12:28 AM
All - I was not speaking in regard to religion. I just think everyone is willing to bend for the few that might be offended. No one seems to care about the people it does not offend... I thought we lived in a democracy and majority should rule. Our kids have to give up celebrating Halloween, Christmas, etc in school because if offends people. If they do not want to partake in tradition/celebrations then they have the choice to keep their children home or not speak during the Pledge of Allegiance. I am very curious what currency $$ they pay their bills in though? Is the United States suppose to change our currency because if offends people??
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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