(Video of the oral arguments can be seen online here.)
American Humanist Association seeks equal protection for humanists and atheists
(Boston, MA, Sept. 4, 2013) — A Massachusetts humanist family, objecting to the required daily assertion in public schools via the Pledge of Allegiance that the nation is “under God,” is getting its day before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court today. The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center is representing them in a challenge to the state law requiring the practice. Supporters are expected to gather today at 8:00 a.m. outside the courthouse in Boston where oral arguments are being heard.
While previous cases challenging the “under God” wording have been based on Establishment Clause arguments from the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, this case is the first to seek equal rights for atheists and humanists based squarely on equal protection guarantees in a state constitution. A ruling is being sought that declares unconstitutional the current daily classroom recitation of the Pledge because its “under God” wording discriminates against atheists and humanists, associating true patriotism with God-belief while suggesting that nonbelievers are less patriotic or even unpatriotic. Any public school activity meant to install patriotism, as is the stated purpose of the current required daily exercise, must be nondiscriminatory.
“Patriotism has nothing to do with religion, but that’s the message Massachusetts is sending by mandating a daily, teacher-led, school-sponsored exercise that declares the nation to be ‘under God,’” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “The fact that the Pledge exercise is intended specifically for the purpose of instilling patriotism in children makes the religious discrimination even more egregious. Any daily patriotic exercise should be inclusive of all Massachusetts children, without portraying believers as being better patriots than nonbelievers.”
The original Pledge of Allegiance—without “under God”—was written by a private party in 1892 and adopted by Congress in 1942. “Under God” wasn’t added until 1954 at the height of McCarthyism to separate the United States from the “godless” Soviet Union. In a 2002 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the Pledge violated the Establishment Clause, but that decision was reversed on a technicality by the Supreme Court. (Without ruling on the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court dismissed the case on grounds that the plaintiff who brought the case lacked standing.)
“We have clearly presented to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that unconstitutional religious discrimination is taking place when public school children with certain religious beliefs are the only ones portrayed as patriotic Americans,” said Bill Burgess, legal coordinator of the American Humanist Association’s legal arm, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “Atheist and humanist students should have equal opportunity to profess their patriotism proudly, along with everyone else, without having to participate in an exercise that disfavors them.”
The suit, Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, was filed in November 2010 by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center on behalf of three public school students and their parents. A lower court ruled against the plaintiffs in June 2012, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court accepted direct appellate review. Attorney David Niose, a former president of the AHA, will argue the plaintiffs’ case before the SJC.
Conservative religious groups such as the Knights of Columbus, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Massachusetts Family Institute, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty have joined the case to support the school system’s efforts to keep “under God” in the mandated pledge. Thirty-six members of Congress, including Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rep. Randy Forbes, have also filed an amicus brief in support of keeping “under God” in the pledge.
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The American Humanist Association (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 175 local chapters and affiliates across the United States. Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation and The Herb Block Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.