Following several rulings over the years, a family from the Acton-Boxborough School District asked the Massachusetts Superior Judicial Court on Wednesday to ban the daily Pledge of Allegiance in public schools on the grounds of discrimination against atheists.
A lawyer for the atheist Acton couple who sued on behalf of their three children argued that the reference to “under God” in the pledge suggests that “good patriots are God believers” and nonbelievers are unpatriotic.
Roy Speckhardt, executive director at the American Humanist Association, said children are being discriminated in a classroom environment if they choose not to recite the pledge.
“It’s difficult to explain this to people, but whether or not kids actually stand up and say this [the pledge], they’re being discriminated against,” he said. “Kids are put in a difficult spot if they opt out of a patriotic exercise because they attract a lot of unwanted attention to themselves from other classmates.”
The AHA supported the case in accordance with their mission to normalize the idea of patriotism without religious affiliation, according to a press release on Wednesday.
The original Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 and adopted by Congress in 1942, without the words “under God” included. “Under God” was added in 1954 during the height of McCarthyism to separate the United States from the Soviet Union and for students to pledge their allegiance to America.
Diana Verm, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — an organization supporting the Acton-Boxborough School District — said the phrase “under God” is not a religious statement, but rather a political one dating back to the Cold War.
“The pledge is something we use to express American ideals, whether it’s children or adults saying it,” she said. “There have been three federal cases against the pledge, each on different grounds … in all cases, we intervened on behalf of families who want to continue using the pledge.”
Speckhardt said reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools creates a partisan environment for young students who are at a tender and impressionable age.
“It shouldn’t be the government’s job to have people recognize God,” he said. “It isn’t what we elect our government to do.”
Speckhardt said this is a case concerning equal rights that deserves attention.
“The time is right for this kind of issue in a way that previous years were not,” he said “There’s a lot more evidence that equal protection under the law should be taken a lot more seriously nowadays. There’s more delicacy towards equal rights … if people care about equal treatment under the law, then they should care about this case.”
Paul Ainsley, 43, resident of Boston, said he did not understand why the family was against the pledge being recited in schools.
“I don’t understand why they want it [the pledge] banned so badly,” he said. “It’s the American way. No one is forcing the family or their kids to say it, so why do they want to take away the right from other kids to say it if they want to?”
Benjamin White, 68, physician from the South End, said the wording of the pledge is a dense topic that merits discussion.
“It’s a nice tradition, I think … gives you a sense of pride as you grow up with it,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a religious light, but it’s certainly complicated.”