May 16, 2014

Atheists Lose Fight Over ‘Under God’ at Massachusetts Supreme Court

 ©2014 Religion News Service

The highest court in Massachusetts upheld the
legality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance on May 9,
dealing a blow to atheist groups who challenged the pledge on
anti-discrimination grounds.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said the
daily, teacher-led recitation of the pledge in state public schools does not
violate the state’s equal rights amendment and is not discriminatory against
the children of atheists, humanists, and other nontheists.

“Participation is entirely voluntary,” the court
wrote as a whole in the decision of Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School
, brought by an anonymous humanist family. “(A)ll students are
presented with the same options; and one student’s choice not to participate
because of a religiously held belief is, as both a practical and a legal
matter, indistinguishable from another’s choice to abstain for a wholly
different, more mundane, and constitutionally insignificant reason.”

The ruling marks the second legal loss for
atheists in recent weeks. On May 5, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sectarian
prayers given before government meetings were not a violation of the First
Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state.

Secular activists were quick to condemn the

“This would have been a groundbreaking case for
atheists and humanists, but the Court’s decision simply reaffirms the status
quo,” said Edwina Rogers, executive director of Secular Coalition for America,
an umbrella organization of atheist, humanist and other secular groups.
“Today’s decision tells our children that love for our country must be linked
to a god belief, and that in and of itself is discriminatory.”

The loss is also a setback for a new legal
strategy that secular groups employed after a string of challenges to the
“under God” phrase. Here, they argued that “under God” violated the state
constitution’s guarantee against discrimination rather than the U.S.
Constitution’s promise of separation of church and state.

Since the addition of the phrase “under God” in
1954, the pledge has faced repeated challenges. In 2004, one case reached the
Supreme Court, but ultimately failed, as have all previous challenges.

“We are very disappointed by the court’s ruling,”
said the plaintiffs’ attorney David Niose, legal director for the American
Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “No child should go to
public school every day, from kindergarten to grade 12, and be faced with an
exercise that portrays his or her religious group as less patriotic.”

The American Humanist Association has a similar
case pending in New Jersey. In a statement issued after the ruling, officials
there said they would continue to wage discrimination cases under other state