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Massachusetts parents sue to ban the Pledge of Allegiance from schools

September 9, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
It's back to school time, so it must be time for another lawsuit against the Pledge of Allegiance.

An atheist family in Acton, Mass., is asking the Massachusetts Superior Judicial Court to ban the daily pledge in public schools because they see it as discrimination against atheists.

The case brings to mind another famous lawsuit, this one by atheist parent Michael Newdow, who tried and failed to have the pledge banned from his daughter's school in 2004. Newdow lost his case after the court ruled he didn't have standing to bring a lawsuit because he didn't have physical custody of his daughter at the time he filed the lawsuit. In 2010, Newdow and another family lost another case against the pledge. A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that saying the pledge doesn't violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution and is mainly a patriotic exercise. I would predict the same result for the Massachusetts family's case.

That said, I think there probably are good reasons for being troubled by the pledge. Some historians have talked about the pledge as part of America's "civic religion," which serves to bind people from various cultures and backgrounds together. In many ways, the pledge does feel like a religious activity. As a young child, I learned and recited the pledge pretty much the way I learned and recited the Our Father and the Hail Mary at Sunday Mass. The class rose in unison, faced the flag, put their hands over their hearts and said the pledge with the words "under God." I remember consciously making those associations between the prayer and the pledge, God and country while I sat in my elementary classroom. When I was a bit older and decided that I would protest against some government action by remaining silent during the recitation of the pledge, it felt a bit sacrilegious, even though nobody noticed my protest.

From that perspective, it's not hard to see why nonconformist parents might be concerned about how a daily Pledge of Allegiance might affect their children. The pledge is not mandatory, but it would be hard for a third-grader to see that when his teacher and his entire class has risen around him and is reciting the pledge in unison. It would take an unusually strong, confident child to remain seated. For that matter, It would take an unusually strong, confident dissenting adult to remain seated at a school board meeting or even at an athletic event when the entire audience stands up, faces the flag and puts their hands over their hearts at the start of a meeting or game. "Under god" is a relatively late addition to the pledge, which was originally composed in 1892 by a Baptist minister. A federal law mandated in 1954 that "under god" be added to the pledge recited every day by schoolchildren.

Maybe we don't want to make it easy to dissent. But I think we should remember that dissent is part of being an American too.


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