Pledge of Allegiance: 'under God' under threat in Massachusetts (+video)
A new lawsuit seeks to have the phrase 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance declared discriminatory under the state's Equal Rights Amendment. If successful, the effort could spread to other states.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that examines whether the “under God” clause in the Pledge of Allegiance makes the state’s daily recitation of the Pledge in schools discriminatory.Skip to next paragraph
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This isn’t the first time the clause has come before a judge, though plaintiffs in this case are basing their arguments in equal protection guarantees – which are particularly strong under Massachusetts’s Equal Rights Amendment – rather than the First Amendment.
“It’s a different approach,” says David Niose, the attorney for the plaintiffs and president of the Secular Coalition for America. “We have constitutional protections demanding equality. The state statute that requires daily recitation – sponsored by school, led by teacher – of the Pledge of Allegiance, obviously discriminates against atheist and humanist children. On a daily basis, you’re having patriotism defined and having children indoctrinated in way that exalts one religious group and marginalizes atheists and humanists.”
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In the past, most challenges to the “under God” clause in the Pledge have been unsuccessful. The notable exception was in 2002, when the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, in fact, the words are an endorsement of religion and violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment – a ruling that created a small political storm at the time. That ruling was reversed, however, when the US Supreme Court held that the plaintiff (a noncustodial parent) didn’t have standing to bring the suit. When a new suit was filed and reached that same Ninth Circuit eight years later, the court ruled that, in fact, the phrase is a historical reflection of beliefs that doesn’t constitute an endorsement of religion.
Atheists unhappy with the phrase in the Pledge have long pointed out that, in fact, that phrase doesn’t have many historical roots: The original Pledge – written in 1892 and adopted by Congress as a national pledge in 1942 – didn’t contain the words “under God.” The phrase was added in 1954 during the McCarthy Era.