The pledge is in court again

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear an appeal challenging a state law mandating the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

The plaintiffs claim daily classroom affirmation that the nation is “under God” violates state constitutional prohibitions against religious discrimination.

Which it is. It absolutely is. It’s revolting. It not only shouldn’t be mandated, it shouldn’t be allowed. Forcing children to make a daily god-assertion in public schools is outrageously coercive.

The plaintiffs brought the case through the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. The SJC on Thursday approved the petition for direct appellate review of the case, which means a lower court will not have to first consider the appeal.

“Public schools are defining patriotism and loyalty on a daily basis by exalting one religious group and stigmatizing humanists and other non-theists. Of course that’s discrimination,” said American Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt. “We feel confident that a fair hearing will result in a finding that the state law requiring this discriminatory practice violates the state’s equal rights amendment.”

Public schools are also telling students that the US is “under god,” which is a nonsensical, impertinent, intrusive thing for schools – especially but not exclusively public schools – to tell children. The US isn’t “under god.” There is no god for the US to be under, and if there were a god, who is to say we should agree to be under it? What if the god is evil?

And then, announcing that the US is “under god” risks implying that other countries are not. This is the “god is on our side” idea and it’s a bad, dangerous one.

Massachusetts law requires public school teachers to begin each day with a classroom recitation of the Pledge. The suit claims that daily affirmation that the nation is “under God” in the context of an exercise designed to promote national loyalty “directly contradicts the religious beliefs and principles of the plaintiffs” and effectively defines patriotism in terms of God-belief, thereby marginalizing plaintiffs and contributing to existing prejudices against nonbelievers.

Forcibly promoting national loyalty is a crappy idea anyway. The loyalty should be reasoned and freely adopted, not instilled via daily forced repetition.

Religious interest groups have intervened in the case to defend the daily “under God” recitation. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents the Knights of Columbus and a family that supports the “under God” wording.

For religious liberty? How do they have the face? Liberty is the very opposite of what this is. It’s mandated. That’s not liberty. How can it be a matter of religious liberty to have the state forcing students to say “under God” every day?

It can’t.



  1. Sastra says

    Plaintiff: “The Pledge of Allegiance defines patriotism in terms of God-belief, thereby marginalizing plaintiffs and contributing to existing prejudices against nonbelievers.”

    Defendant: “No, it doesn’t.”

    General Public: “Yes it does — and that’s the POINT!”

  2. says

    At this point do these things even need to go to trial? You know, like when there are a bunch of college kids partying next door and you call the cops? And the cops come and say to them, “hey you need to turn it down or you’re gonna get served”? And they don’t turn it down? And hen they get served?

    What I’m saying is aren’t we at the point where we can treat it like any other illegal thing? We should no longer need to have citizens file suit against these infractions, in the same way that The annoyed neighbor is not required to sue the partyers to get them into court. It is now an issue between “the law” and the offenders.

    I also could be SO wrong about this… Be gentle…

  3. Jeff D says

    Sometimes, when a mule is really stubborn, a whack on the head with a big stick will get its attention, and sometimes nothing less will suffice.

    Local school boards often resemble these hypothetical mules, and actual lawsuits by ACLU-type plaintiffs are the equivalent of the whack with the stick. Nothing else gets their attention. It’s important to keep threatening suit, and to keep filing these suits, whenever (as in this situation) it’s clear that the school board is violating well-established case law principles.

    Were it not for the ability of successful plaintiffs to win attorney fee awards in these cases, the remedy of a court proceeding would be “priced out of existence,” in practical terms, because of the costs of litigation.

  4. fastlane says

    So, according to SCOTUS precedent, children can not be forced to say the pledge. (Ref. West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette) However, if there’s a ruling that allows teachers to opt out, I’m unaware of it.

    The problem, of course,is that it forces students to identify themselves and be willing to stand up to the perceived authority of the school, as well as peer criticism from other students (often bullying, both physical and verbal). Some districts require the additional onus of getting parents to write the opt out to the school.

    ashleybell, it should be a slam dunk. Generally, when schools fight to keep doing this, they are just wasting taxpayer money on lawyers.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for bringing this to the light. I read the ruling of the State Superior Court judge that is being appealed and it was kind of what I expected.

    The court essentially said that the words ‘under God’ did not convert the pledge into a prayer and since saying the pledge was voluntary, the children who did not say it were not being discriminated against or punished.

    My own feeling is that the words ‘under God’ do make it unconstitutional (under the US constitution at least) but like with the words ‘In God We Trust’ on the currency, the courts will find reasons to avoid taking action on what they think is a trivial violation and thus not worth stirring up a hornets nest by throwing it out. The way they will do that is by saying that it is a meaningless boilerplate phrase, thrown in to add gravitas but without content. This is not very complimentary to religious beliefs, if you think about it. I expect the Supreme Judicial Court to uphold the ruling on similar grounds.

    What was interesting that the complaint was filed under the equal protection clause of the state constitution, and not under the state equivalent of the Establishment Clause of the US constitution, assuming Massachusetts has one.

  6. Beatrice, anti-imperialist anti-racist Islamophobiaphobic leftist says

    To this European, saying the pledge every day with or without the God part seems really strange. And disturbing.

  7. says

    To this American too, Beatrice. I went to a private school so I was never habituated to it, and then one day when I was in the 9th grade someone suddenly decided we would say it. I was repulsed, and I refused to say it. It lapsed very quickly.

  8. crowepps says

    Voluntary? I wouldn’t have a problem with all the kids who want to say the pledge going down to the gym, or out to the flag pool, to do so before class starts. Assuming all the kids should/will want to take a religious loyalty oath and marking out as ‘weird’ those who don’t want to participate is 100% wrong.

  9. Anna Y says

    So here’s a little personal anecdote about the Pledge in schools. During my senior year in high school, either the whole state (Virginia) or just my county (Fairfax) — I really don’t know, or care, which, decided to have us start the day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Per school policy, students were allowed not to participate but engage in some “quiet activities” instead. I was one of the students who objected (actually, I didn’t see any others, but I didn’t observe every class). My objection wasn’t specifically to the words “Under God” — while I was never religious, I did go through a vaguely deistic and then agnostic stages as a child/teen, but more importantly, at the time I failed to see what the big deal was, and I didn’t even know that the words were a relatively recent add-on to the original pledge. What I objected to, vehemently, was the ridiculousness of the procedure. I realized that the goal of those who insisted on the recitation was to foster some sense of pride or patriotism through a ritual presumably designed to evoke exalted feelings. What I knew of how human beings ticked made me certain that rather than instilling reverence for the U.S. the daily repetition was, instead, simply going to make the words meaningless. So not only were the students being coerced, not only was the first period always being disrupted, but the exercise was utterly pointless. The sheer willful stupidity of this rankled me, and I was hell bent on using the “objection loophole”, as I thought of it, to avoid taking part in this travesty.

    And yes, despite not being required to participate, it was still coercion: whether you stood up to say the words or sat quietly, it still had to be endured. I never got any flack from other students. I did once get yelled at and threatened with detention by a teacher, because I dared to type during the pledge — apparently that wasn’t a quiet enough activity. Nonetheless, remaining seated and silent while everyone around you gets up and recites the pledge along with the teacher and the intercom is remarkably unnerving, and I found it extremely difficult to stick with my resolution throughout the year.

    The funny thing, of course, was that I was right. The novelty wore off quickly. All around me I saw students slouched with boredom or rolling their eyes in annoyance, chewing gum, mumbling, surreptitiously writing/passing notes, and doing all the things that bored kids do when forced to go through the motions of something they don’t give a hoot about. Ironically, I was probably the most active, though unwilling, participant in the entire class: because really, good luck tuning out a chorus of voices speaking in unison and finding a “quiet activity” to focus one’s attention on for the duration, and since I was the only one remaining seated and resisting the almost palpable pressure (which didn’t fade, unlike everyone’s patriotic fervor) to do what the rest of the group did, it was invariably an emotionally charged couple of minutes for me.

  10. says

    Anna – same here!

    That is, I wasn’t clever enough to think it through and realize the familiarity problem, but then I didn’t think it was the school’s business to instill patriotism anyway. But it was the overall absurdity and intrusiveness that I hated. I think the first day we were told to do it I stood up with the others and made a stab at it and just felt “ew” and quit.

    Let’s face it, it has a Nazi feel to it. Or a churchy feel. I’ve never liked either one.

    This doesn’t apply to the oath of citizenship. That too is in unison, and mandatory, but it’s completely different. A rote oath of citizenship every morning – no, no, no.

  11. Black Antelope says

    I agree. The whole pledging to the flag thing (from a European perspective) is just scary. I think European nationalism died in ’45-46, looking back on the horror of the last 50 years (sadly some people (*cough* BNP/PVV *cough*) seem to have forgotten that).

    Doing that sort of thing, let alone the government mandating it, is incomprehensible for a central/northern European, and, I would say, a measure of just how geographically isolated the US is (ie, while it participated in the world wars, its existence was never really threatened by them (and the horror of uncontrolled nationalism)).

  12. says

    Canadian here, so no Pledge — but we did have to sing O Canada (or God Save the Queen) and recite the Lords Prayer every morning through primary school at least (I don’t recall when it changed into just listening to it over the intercom — sometime in junior high, I think). And like Anna’s class mates @10, all it did was teach the ability to recite words on autopilot, while being incredibly bored and thinking about something else. My feelings about it didn’t change even after a teenage conversion to Evangelicalism. It is beyond my comprehension why any adult would imagine that forced rote repetition of the same damn formula every day is an effective method of instilling either patriotism or piety in children.

    I must say that I appreciate O Canada a lot more now that I hear/sing it a lot less.

  13. says

    Oh that’s another thing – having to stand up for God Save the Queen. I can actually remember that happening in London theatres and even cinemas. Cinemas! It’s so ridiculous. I was once prodded and rebuked by someone behind me because I wasn’t standing up for it at a cinema near Marble Arch. I guess they were strict about it in the big West End cinemas. The movie was Sleuth.

  14. xmaseveeve says

    When I was in primary school, I went to a dance with my school friend and her parents. At the end, I almost caused a riot by refusing, point blank, to stand for ‘God Save the Queen’. I was eleven.

    I remember a man screeched, pointing, ‘She’s not eleven – she’s TWELVE!’ (I wasn’t!) and that clearly meant I deserved to die. Fine, outraged, as I would be now, that a man had over-estimated my age! – I would die with my arse stuck to that chair. My hosts were apologising profusely for me. I mean it really was touch and go.

    But that was in Glasgow, in an Orange Hall. No one has made this (non) stand in such a place, before or since, and survived. Apart from that, cinema and theatre audiences in Glasgow didn’t stand, ever, except to put on their coats, and anyone who did stand to attention was looked upon as a heidbanger, and either laughed at, or beaten up.

    As my Cambridge mentor used to say, you can read right back to Burns and see that Scots have always been ‘highly subversive’. Times are hard, but I sure hate all the incitement of this last refuge, fashionable nationalism. Help ma boab.

  15. markr1957 (Patent Pending) says

    The only time I have recited the pledge was during my naturalization ceremony in 2005, but with so many others in attendance nobody even noticed that I skipped the ‘underdog’ bit.

    Prior to that the only oath of allegiance I had to swear was to the queen when i joined the British Army when I was just 17, so I just had to suck it up and play make belief for that. It was almost a relief when I blew my knee out so badly it left me disabled because I no longer had to stand up for anything – not even to toast the queen!

    My problem is that even if there is a supreme being that actually did create the entire universe she was way more amazing than the puny, pathetic YHWH of the Old Testament, who could barely manage one planet with a canopy full of holes held up by pillars, and one very average sun, and who was useless in a fight with anyone who had iron chariots. Who, in hir right mind would want to worship a sad little joke of a god like that? A pledge that includes “one nation, under a sad and pathetic jealous little Iron Age deity” doesn’t have much of a ring to it though, eh?

  16. Martha says

    I hated this in school, and I refused to say it. The Under God part was only part of the reason– I also felt that claiming that there was “liberty and justice for all” bolstered a myth of equal justice that makes it harder to achieve this goal in reality. My parents supported that stance, but it never came to anything. I didn’t say the pledge and my teachers ignored it. If this had happened in elementary school, it would have been much harder to resist.

  17. ismenia says

    Reply to Ophelia #15

    National anthems in cinemas are thankfully lone gone in the UK. I remember going into the lounge on Christmas day to pass on some message about dinner from my Mum and being ushered in and made to remain by some relatives. An old lady was on the screen. When I asked who that was they whispered in an irritated way that it was the Queen. The picture on all the money had not been updated for a while so she did not look at all how I expected. I probably also expected her to have a fancier dress and wear the crown all the time.

    When the Queen’s speech ended the national anthem played and they all stood up. It seemed ludicrous to me but it also allowed me to make my escape as they were far to absorbed to notice me leaving. My Mum just laughed when I told her what they were doing, her side of they family are not that way inclined.

    I must have been about 5 or so. I’ve always hated those kind of displays. Thankfully we don’t do too much of it now. The practice of saying the pledge of allegiance always seemed outrageous to me but then I thought nothing of the collective act of Christian-based worship that UK requires at daily in all state schools (although many ignore it and those in multi-cultural areas tend to avoid anything too Christian). That seems outrageous to me now. When I doubted Christianity I always reminded myself that my teachers seemed to believe it. It gives it undeserved authority.

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