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'Under God' Challenged by Massachusetts Atheist Pledge Appeal

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By Clyde Hughes   |   Thursday, 05 Sep 2013 08:37 AM

The phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is being challenged in a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, as an atheist couple says the words exclude their children.

In Massachusetts it is mandatory for teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, but student participation is voluntary, the Boston Herald reported.

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The American Humanist Association argued in its court filings that the pledge uses "wording strongly favoring one religious class while disfavoring the plaintiffs’ religious class."

Eric Rassbach, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argued on behalf of the Acton-Boxboro Regional School District. Rassbach said the pledge's challenge resembled "using a bazooka to blow up a mole hill."

"They want this to be a foundation for a national campaign to eliminate the pledge," Rassbach said, according to the Boston Herald. "If the pledge is struck down in Massachusetts, there’ll be a rash of copycat lawsuits across the nation."

Middlesex Superior Court Judge S. Jane Haggerty ruled last year that the school district's pledge did not violate state law and the district's anti-discrimination policy, according to the Springfield Republican.

The judge said the pledge was voluntary and did not "convert the exercise into a prayer." The couple, who remained anonymous in the lawsuit, appealed the ruling to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Justice Ralph Gantz asked attorneys during the hearing Wednesday whether principals could just tell students at the beginning of year that they didn't have to take part in the pledge for any variety of personal reasons.

"That would be a baby step in the right direction," said David Niose, attorney for the couple. "The exercise itself still discriminates. It defines patriotism a certain way. The reality is it’s invidious."

Acton-Boxboro attorney Geoffrey Bok argued that the pledge is "not a prayer. It’s an affirmation. It’s a statement of our political philosophy. A voluntary provision is about as unobtrusive as you can get."

The Republican reported that since Congress added the words "under God" to the pledge in 1954, there has been numerous challenges using the separation-of-church-and-state argument, but the Massachusetts case is unique because the plaintiffs claim to be victims of discrimination.

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