Challenge to ‘Under God’ in pledge loses in Massachusetts

Federal courts had already declined to rule that the inclusion of the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional largely on the basis that they had earlier ruled that no one could be forced to say the Pledge and thus saying it was voluntary. A new strategy had sought to eliminate it by appealing to state constitutions, with cases in Massachusetts and New Jersey already underway and others pending in other states.

But now the highest court in Massachusetts has also ruled that saying the Pledge of Allegiance is not unconstitutional on the same grounds, that it is voluntary.

The decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court makes it likely that this state-by-state strategy will not succeed since this is about as progressive a state supreme court as you are likely to find. It was the first one that ruled in 2004 that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional under their state constitution and that led to the first issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples in the US. That ruling was seized upon by religious conservatives to rally and mobilize their supporters for that fall’s elections, leading to a wave of constitutional amendments in other states banning same-sex marriage. That anti-gay wave in now being pushed back judicially and legislatively state by state until the time when the US Supreme Court rules definitively.

But that state-by-state strategy seems to be not working for the pledge issue. I think that efforts to remove the phrase ‘under God’ should be shelved for now. The country is not ready for it and unlike in the case of same-sex marriage, the courts are clearly shying away from ordering a change. We secularists should shift our focus and energies to other issues where there is a better chance of victory.


  1. A Masked Avenger says

    Voluntary in that you have the option of refusing to affirm your loyalty to the federal government if you’re not a theist? How magnanimous. That will go over well in, oh, Alabama. “So you not only reject God, but you hate ‘Murrica too?”

  2. hyphenman says


    Not that long ago, reciting The Loyalty Oath Pledge of Allegiance was mandatory in every school room in America.

    Interestingly enough, it was a religious objection, by Jehova’s Witnesses, that ended the practice (see Minersville School District vs. Gobitis and West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette).

    That the strongest protest does not come from the far right has always been telling to me. If conservatives truly objected to big government, &c., they would be the first to man the barricades against any swearing of allegiance to the central government.

    Of course, the pledge itself (and the 1954 addition of “under god”) has a very sketchy history.


  3. Scr... Archivist says

    Is there a legislative avenue for fixing this problem? Can state legislatures change the pledge back to what it was before 1954?

    And, of course, students can just stop saying it until a few decades from now it is forgotten. Maybe it’s worth finding out how many students, at each grade, actually say it. I bet that by high school hardly anyone joins in. Work back from there until the teachers just stand by themselves.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Sure legislatures can change the pledge or stop requiring that it be said by the institution. But politically they are not likely to go anywhere near that hot potato because there is very little upside for them in doing so.

  5. elpayaso says

    i think the answer on this one may be similar to the answer to courthouse xtian displays….subject em to some alternatives and see how they like it. there are lots of deities and other fictional characters to have the YewwEssofAyy be “under” or “over”, which can generate some entertaining imagery. i actually ran into one kindred spirit here because she heard me saying “under Cthulhu”…….

    i realize this solution may not work for, say, high schoolers in fundie hells…….

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