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Under God' Atheist Family's Pledge Battle That Could Have Nationwide Implications Heads to Mass. Supreme Court


"No child should go to school every day, from kindergarten to grade twelve, to be faced with an exercise that defines patriotism according to religious belief."

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It was in early 2012 that TheBlaze first reported about a Massachusetts family's efforts to have "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. While the atheist parents ardently pushed the case, a judge ruled in favor of the Acton Boxborough Regional School District, finding that there is nothing unconstitutional about the proclamation.

The case is returning to the courtroom on Wednesday, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments at 9 a.m.

The current battle commenced in February 2012 when an atheist family launched the case to have the words “under God” removed from the pledge. Months later, in June 2012, the American Humanist Association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center announced the parents planned to appeal after the Middlesex Superior Court ruled against the family.

Students say the Pledge of Allegiance (AP)

As The Blaze previously reported, the family decided to sue the Acton-Boxborough school system, claiming that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the words “under God” discriminates against their children. The parents, who wish to remain anonymous, are identified only as John and Jane Doe. They have three children in the district — one in high school and two others in middle school.

In Middlesex Superior Court last year, David Niosie, the family’s lawyer asked that the words be taken out of the pledge.

"No child should go to school every day, from kindergarten to grade 12, to be faced with an exercise that defines patriotism according to religious belief,” Niose said at the time of the initial dismissal. “If conducting a daily classroom exercise that marginalizes one religious group while exalting another does not violate basic principles of equal rights and nondiscrimination, then I don’t know what does.”

While some might dismiss the case as similar to past unsuccessful efforts to remove "under God,"  the family, led by their attorneys, is taking a very different strategic approach. Rather than using the U.S. Constitution as their basis, the plaintiffs are going after the state’s use of “under God,” claiming that it is, instead, a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution.

"This is the first time a legal challenge to government use of 'under God' is based on the equal protection rights in a state constitution instead of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment," the law center said in a statement Tuesday.

Religion News Service's Kimberly Winston reported that this intentional strategy follows a blueprint that was used by gay rights advocates a decade ago. In 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to issue gay marriage licenses, using equal rights laws to secure a win. Later, other states followed this model. In the case of the pledge, as Winston notes, a win for the atheist family could spark a similar pattern in other localities.

Photo credit: ShutterStock.com

Last year, Noise said that the pledge is "a daily indoctrination." The recitation essentially, in his view, defines patriotism as a belief in the ideal that a higher power exists. Since state law requires the inclusion of the pledge in schools, the lawyer argues that this is a problematic endorsement that discriminates.

"When we define patriotism with a religious truth claim -- that the nation is in fact under a god -- we define nonbelievers as less patriotic," he said following last year's proceedings.

But the pledge, the Middlesex Superior Court noted, is only optional for students to say. Now, the state's highest court will have a say in the matter.

“Under God” was added to the pledge by various groups in the late 1940s and early 1950s and was officially adopted by Congress in 1954. Since then, it has sparked controversy among atheist and church-state separation advocacy organizations.



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