Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, Massachusetts

Image: Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, Massachusetts

UPDATE: ‘Under God’ in Pledge of Allegiance Upheld Unanimously by Massachusetts’ Highest Court (May 9, 2014)

After three failed attempts to strike down “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance on the federal level, atheist advocates next sought to challenge it on the state level in Acton-Boxborough, Massachusetts.

On October 21, 2011, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a request to intervene on behalf of students who want to continue saying the current Pledge, their parents Daniel and Ingrid Joyce, and a fraternal organization called the Knights of Columbus.

This case, brought by local atheists and ahypersecularist group known as the American Humanist Association,presented nothing more than a new twist on a redundant theme. Humanist Plaintiffs retreated from their previous argument that voluntary recitation of the Pledge violates the Federal Constitution, asserting instead that it violates atheists’ equal protection rights under the Massachusetts Constitution. However, their premise required courts to embrace two familiar but outdated arguments about the Pledge: (1) that the Pledge constitutes a theological statement, and (2) that voluntary recitation isn’t enough; all who wish to say the Pledge in its entirety must be silenced.

For over a decade, the Becket Fund has successfully defeated both claims by demonstrating that the phrase “under God” encapsulates America’s unique political philosophy which grounds human dignity and fundamental rights in an authority higher than the State. Consequently, historic appeals to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farwell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are not primarily religious. By adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 (reaffirmed in 2002), Congress sought to contrast the mutually exclusive conceptions of human rights envisioned by the United States and the U.S.S.R.

On June 8, 2012, a Massachusetts state court upheld the Pledge as constitutional. Two years later on May 9, 2014, after another round of appeals, the Becket Fund secured its fourth victory in preserving the Pledge when Massachusetts’ highest court unanimously upheld the words “under God.” Every justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that “the pledge, notwithstanding its reference to God, is a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one.”

J. Patrick Kennedy, of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas, LLP in Boston acted as co-counsel in this case.

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