The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't violate the First Amendment rights of non-believers in part because its origins are in Cold War patriotism, not religion - and in part because nobody in Massachusetts can be forced to recite it.
The state's highest court's ruling comes in the case of an atheist Acton couple who objected to the inclusion of the phrase in the pledge their three children wanted to recite with their classmates every morning.
The court noted that while the phrase "under God" can obviously carry a religious connotation:
[C]ourts that have considered the history of the pledge and the presence of those words have consistently concluded that the pledge, notwithstanding its reference to God, is a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one.
The justices explained:
In 1954, Congress amended the pledge to include the words "under God." ... The amendment came during the escalation of the Cold War, and there is some indication in the legislative history that the amendment was intended to underscore that the American form of government was "founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being," which is grounded in "the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp."
They continued that the parents presented no proof their children were in any way punished, ostracized or bullied for not reciting the pledge:
There is no evidence in the summary judgment record that the plaintiffs' children have in fact been treated by school administrators, teachers, staff, fellow students, or anyone else any differently from other children because of their religious beliefs, or because of how they participate in the pledge. Nor is there any evidence that they have in fact been perceived any differently for those reasons. The plaintiffs do identify what they claim is a poor public perception of atheists in general, and they maintain that their children's failure to recite the pledge in its entirety may "possibly" lead to "unwanted attention, criticism, and potential bullying." However, there is nothing in the record indicating that this has in fact happened to the plaintiffs' children or to any other Massachusetts schoolchildren because of their decision to exercise their right not to recite the words "under God" in the pledge. In short, there is nothing empirical or even anecdotal in the summary judgment record to support a claim that the children actually have been treated or perceived by others as "outsiders," "second-class citizens," or "unpatriotic."
The plaintiffs' claim of stigma is more esoteric. They contend that the mere recitation of the pledge in the schools is itself a public repudiation of their religious values, and, in essence, a public announcement that they do not belong. It is this alleged repudiation that they say causes them to feel marginalized, sending a message to them and to others that, because they do not share all of the values that are being recited, they are "unpatriotic" "outsiders." We hold that this very limited type of consequence alleged by the plaintiffs--feeling stigmatized and excluded - is not cognizable under [the state equivalent of the First Amendment].
The decision is the second ruling this week that would affect the Boston City Council if anybody objected to the way it opens its regular meetings with a prayer by a local member of the clergy and the Pledge of Allegiance - although to date nobody has. The US Supreme Court upheld the right of a New York town to open its legislative meetings with a clergy-led prayer.