Tuesday, May 13, 2014
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled last week that the daily recitation in school classrooms of the Pledge of Allegiance, with the words "under God," did not violate the state constitutional equal rights amendment. The case, Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, was brought by a group of atheist and Humanist students, who claimed that the words "under God" alienated them and caused them to become outsiders because of their religion. (The plaintiffs only argued equal protection; they did not bring a religion clause claim.)
The Massachusetts high court rejected the argument. It said that the Pledge was voluntary; that reciting the Pledge was a "patriotic exercise," not a "religious exercise," even with the words "under God"; and that in any event the plaintiffs didn't show that they had been treated differently because of their religion. On that last point, the court said that the practice or reciting the Pledge treated all students the same: each student, regardless of religion, could say it along with the rest of the class, or not. Here's the court:
Where the plaintiffs do not claim that a school program or activity violates anyone's First Amendment religion rights (or cognate rights under the Massachusetts Constitution), they cannot rely instead on the equal rights amendment, and claim that the school's even-handed implementation of the program or activity, and the plaintiffs' exposure to it, unlawfully discriminates against them on the basis of religion. [Citing Harris v. McRae and San Antonio v. Rodriguez.] Where the program or activity is applied equally to all students, and where those who object to it are not required to participate, or may choose to participate in all parts of it that they do not find objectionable, the feeling of "stigma" caused by seeing or hearing the program being provided to others is not legally cognizable for purposes of the equal rights amendment. Any claim that, by conducting the program or activity for others who do not choose to participate, the school has publicly repudiated a plaintiff's beliefs and thereby rendered him or her a "second-class citizen" or "outsider" is not tenable, and we decline to apply [state constitutional equal protection] in this fashion.