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“Under God” Pledge Case to be Reviewed by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

For Immediate Release
Contact: Brian Magee, 202-238-9088 ex 105, bmagee@americanhumanist.org

(Washington, DC, Oct. 26, 2012) —The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has agreed to hear the appeal from a humanist family challenging a state law that requires daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag in public schools. The plaintiffs claim daily classroom affirmation that the nation is “under God” violates state constitutional prohibitions against religious discrimination.

The plaintiffs brought the case through the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. The SJC on Thursday approved the petition for direct appellate review of the case, which means a lower court will not have to first consider the appeal.

“Public schools are defining patriotism and loyalty on a daily basis by exalting one religious group and stigmatizing humanists and other non-theists. Of course that’s discrimination,” said American Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt. “We feel confident that a fair hearing will result in a finding that the state law requiring this discriminatory practice violates the state’s equal rights amendment.”

The lawsuit, brought on behalf of three public school students and their parents, was filed in November 2010 and is the first of its kind seeking equal rights for atheists and humanists based on equal protection guarantees in the state constitution instead of traditional First Amendment Establishment Clause arguments.

Massachusetts law requires public school teachers to begin each day with a classroom recitation of the Pledge. The suit claims that daily affirmation that the nation is “under God” in the context of an exercise designed to promote national loyalty “directly contradicts the religious beliefs and principles of the plaintiffs” and effectively defines patriotism in terms of God-belief, thereby marginalizing plaintiffs and contributing to existing prejudices against nonbelievers.

A lower court ruled against the plaintiffs in June, and the plaintiffs appealed. With the SJC granting direct appellate review, the case will now be decided by the state’s highest court.

Religious interest groups have intervened in the case to defend the daily “under God” recitation. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents the Knights of Columbus and a family that supports the “under God” wording.

The phrase “under God” was inserted into the Pledge in 1954 during the post-WWII Red Scare, a moment in time when partisan forces exploited the fear many Americans had of communism, using that fear to promote religion in public life and to vilify atheists and other nonbelievers. The original Pledge was written in 1892, with a later version—still without “under God”—not adopted by the U.S. Congress until 1942.

The case is Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District.

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The American Humanist Association (www.AmericanHumanist.org) advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 150 local chapters and affiliates across America. Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.

Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation and The Herb Block Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, a project of the American Humanist Association that provides legal assistance to defend the constitutional rights of secular Americans by challenging violations of the separation of church and state guaranteed by the Establishment Clause and seeking equal rights for humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.

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