Atheists challenge Pledge of Allegiance in state’s highest court

american flag classroom
Students recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school.
Credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

Saying that atheists face obvious discrimination and are a “wrongly vilified minority,” an anonymous atheist couple took their challenge of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools to the state’s highest court. 

Lawyers for the couple and the defendant, the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, presented oral arguments before the Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday morning.

The atheists, who have three children in the Acton-Boxborough school system, filed suit against the district in Middlesex Superior Court in 2010 that claimed their children’s rights under the state’s equal protection law are being violated. That challenge failed, and the atheists appealed to the SJC.

“We have a pledge where children every morning are pledging their national unity and loyalty in an indoctrinational format in a way that validates religious god belief as truly patriotic and actually invalidates atheism as second-class citizenry at best and downright unpatriotic at worst,” David Niose, a lawyer representing the couple, said during his oral argument.

While many challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance, which has contained the words “under God” since 1954, have been brought before various courts and struck down, this case challenges the daily recitation of the pledge under the state equal protection law.

When asked by the justices what the atheists were looking for, Niose said the group would like a declaration that the current practice be ruled unconstitutional.

The state has a law that requires the pledge be recited in public schools during the first class of each school day. However, a court decision in 1977 said that teachers and students cannot be disciplined for not reciting the pledge. The couple’s children have not participated in reciting the pledge, lawyers said.

But Niose said that previous court decisions stating that the recitation is voluntary does not make it all right.

“The fact that atheist, humanist children go to school everyday to watch their class conduct an exercise led by the teacher that defines patriotism a certain way that excludes them is certainly not a consolation,” Niose said.

Geoffrey Bok, a lawyer representing the school district, pointed out in his argument that the atheists filed no evidence of a student being intimidated for not participating. He also said that there is no mention of religion in the state statute.

“There is no religion bias in the statute. The only mention of religion is in the pledge itself where it does say ‘under God.’ It is not a prayer. It is not an invocation. … It’s a statement of our political philosophy,” he said.

It could be weeks or months before the SJC issues its ruling.

Follow Michael Naughton on Twitter @metrobosmike.


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