Massachusetts Schools Can Say ‘Under God,’ Court Rules

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled against an atheist couple on the Pledge of Allegiance.

Valencia Robinson

Associated Press

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t discriminate against atheists or violate the state Constitution. It was a closely watched decision not just in Massachusetts but around the country, given the national character and contentious history of those two words.

In Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, an anonymous atheist couple challenged the recitationof the phrase “under God” in their children’s public schools. A lower court had rejected their claim that the words violated their children’s guarantee of equal rights, and they appealed the decision to the SJC.

In its decision today, the Court considered the history of the “under God” phrase. The two words didn’t appear in the original pledge, which was first published in a children’s magazine in September 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage. Congress added the words in 1954 to emphasize our cultural differences with the atheist Soviet Union. The court used that fact to argue that the words aren’t religious so much as an acknowledgement of our history and values at the founding:

The amendment was intended to underscore that the American form of government was “founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being,” which is grounded in “the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp.”

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago ruled that no one can be compelled to recite the pledge, and the Massachusetts couple doesn’t claim that their children were forced to say the words “under God.” The U.S. Supreme Court also considered the phrase “under God” back in 2004. The majority ruled that atheist Michael Newdow did not have legal standing to bring the case on behalf of his daughter, so the decision didn’t get at the heart of the Constitutional issues. Three justices who dissented from the majority on the issue of dissent and did consider the Constitutionality of the Pledge all argued that it should be allowed.

But that federal case argued that the words “under God” violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on an establishment of religion. The Massachusetts couple argued that the words violated the state Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights. The Massachusetts SJC didn’t buy it.

There is no evidence in the summary judgment record that the plaintiffs’ children have in fact been treated by school administrators, teachers, staff, fellow students, or anyone else any differently from other children because of their religious beliefs, or because of how they participate in the pledge … In short, there is nothing empirical or even anecdotal in the summary judgment record to support a claim that the children actually have been treated or perceived by others as “outsiders,” “second-class citizens,” or “unpatriotic.”

In other words, no one in Massachusetts has to recite the words “under God,” but public schools can continue to use the Pledge in full without the courts ruling it discrimination against non-believers.