After adopting a new tactical strategy in an attempt to strike "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, atheist activists were dealt a stunning blow Friday when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected a family's lawsuit claiming that the recitation violates secular students' rights.
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"Today the court affirmed what should have been obvious -- ‘God’ is not a dirty word," Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative legal firm, said in a press release. "And it isn’t discriminatory either. The words ‘under God’ are a reminder to our children that government doesn’t give us our rights and it can’t take them away either."
The state's highest court rejected the notion that atheist children are discriminated against when the words "under God" are uttered in public school classrooms, noting that the recitation is optional, according to a press release from the group.
"For those who have been attacking the pledge we would offer this: our system protects their right to remain silent, but it doesn’t give them a right to silence others," Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote.
The American Humanist Association, the secular advocacy group that represented the unnamed family, dismissed the ruling as a failure to protect atheist students' rights.
The lawsuit's aim was to go around past claims of First Amendment Establishment Clause violations to make the case that atheists' rights were being violated under the equal protection provision of the Massachusetts state constitution.
"We are very disappointed by the court’s ruling," said David Niose, director of the American Humanist Association's legal department. "No child should go to public school every day, from kindergarten to grade 12, and be faced with an exercise that portrays his or her religious group as less patriotic."
A press release distributed by the group said that the court's focus on the fact that the children were not bullied due to their non-belief could potentially leave the door open to similar cases with different circumstances.
AP/Troy Record, Tom Killips
As the Religion News Service has noted, using state constitutions to go after the Pledge of Allegiance is a relatively new strategic approach. 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 in these states, a win for atheist families could spark similar patterns and lawsuits in other localities.
A similar case is unfolding in New Jersey, where a family is also using the state's constitution to try and have "under God" removed from the pledge.
Read TheBlaze's extensive history on the Pledge of Allegiance and the ongoing debate surrounding "under God."