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Equal Rights for Atheist Students Denied by Massachusetts Court

"Under God" to Remain in the Mandated Pledge of Allegiance Used in Public Schools

For immediate release

Contact: Merrill Miller, 202-238-9088 ext. 105, merrillmiller@americanhumanist.org

(Washington, DC – May 9, 2014) – In a disappointing ruling against religious equality and the rights of atheists and humanists, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled against a humanist family in their challenge to the mandated recitation of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance used in public schools.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Humanist Association and the Massachusetts family in 2010, bypassed previously unsuccessful traditional First Amendment Establishment Clause arguments, instead making the case based on equal protection rights within the state constitution. The daily recitation in public school classrooms of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag—in the version that includes an affirmation that the nation is “under God”—violates state nondiscrimination law, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued.

“We are very disappointed by the court’s ruling,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney David Niose, legal director for the American Humanist Association. “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 Pledge exercise is a daily indoctrination, Niose said, not just a harmless ceremony as some have asserted. “The flag-salute is how we define patriotism for children on a daily basis,” he said. “When we define patriotism with a religious truth claim—that the nation is in fact under a god—we define nonbelievers as less patriotic.”

Today’s ruling follows oral arguments made Sept. 4, 2013, before the Supreme Judicial Court after an appeal was filed by the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. The court approved the bypass of a lower appellate court in taking the case on direct appellate review.

The court’s decision seemed to place significant weight on the fact that the atheist children in question had not been bullied due to their atheism, potentially opening the door to future challenges under different facts.

The ruling in this case does not stop religious discrimination protections from being asserted in other states with Equal Protections rights guaranteed in their constitutions. The American Humanist Association will be investigating religious discrimination claims by families of public school children in those states and taking the necessary legal steps to end government-sponsored religious discrimination. The American Humanist Association currently has a similar lawsuit pending in New Jersey.

“We continue to strive for the rights of Americans who are good without a god, working in the courts of law and the courts of public opinion.  With the growing numbers of humanists and atheists across the country, it’s only a matter of time before we restore the Pledge of Allegiance to the more inclusive ‘one nation indivisible,’” said American Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt.

The American Humanist Association supported the case through its legal arm, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which works to defend the rights of humanists through the court system.

Documents related to the decision can be viewed here.

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The American Humanist Association advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 175 local chapters and affiliates across the United States.

Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms a responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.