A humanist family in Massachusetts is challenging a state law requiring daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, claiming the phrase “under God” violates state constitutional prohibitions against religious discrimination.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today to decide if requiring the daily recitation of the pledge in public schools constitutes discrimination against non-theists, according to a report issued by CNN on Sept. 3.
The lawsuit, filed by the American Humanist Association and a Massachusetts family, is the first of its kind seeking equal rights for atheists, humanists and other freethinkers. Ignoring traditional arguments based on First Amendment Establishment Clause arguments, the lawsuit seeks a declaration that the daily classroom practice of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and in particular the affirmation that the nation is “under God,” violates state nondiscrimination law. In Massachusetts, both the state constitution and state statute prohibit discrimination based on religion.
American Humanist Association president David Niose said:
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. 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.
Instead of arguing that the phrase “under God” is a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of no government establishment of religion, the plaintiffs are arguing that the pledge violates the right to equal protection under the law. Religion News Service’s Kimberly Winston reports that this strategy follows a blueprint that was successfully used by gay rights advocates a decade ago.
In 2003, Massachusetts’ Supreme Court ruled 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. Non-theists opposed to “under God” in the pledge are hoping to duplicate the strategy.
Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association said “We feel very confident that we have a strong case.” If successful, similar lawsuits are expected to be filed in other states.
The Pledge of Allegiance was originally composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892. The phrase "under God" was incorporated into the pledge on June 14, 1954, by a Joint Resolution of Congress.
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