Massachusetts court rules state law requiring daily recitation of Pledge of Allegiance does not violate students’ rights

Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Reg. Sch. Dist., No. MIC 2010-04261 (Mass. Sup. Ct. June 5, 2012)

Abstract: A Massachusetts Superior Court (trial court level) has ruled that the state law requiring the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools does not violate the state constitution’s equal protection clause and statutory guarantee of equal protection, or the school district’s anti-discrimination policy because of the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge. The trial court concluded that based on the legislative history of the Pledge law, the inclusion of the phrase “under God” had not converted the recitation from a political exercise to a religious exercise.

Facts/Issues: A group of students and their parents, all atheists, and the American Humanist Association filed suit against Acton-Boxborough Regional School District (ABRSD). The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief on the grounds that ABRSD’s daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance pursuant to Massachusetts’ mandatory Pledge law violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause and its statutory equivalent, and ABRSD’s anti-discrimination policy. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment.

Ruling/Rationale: The court granted ABRSD’s motion for summary judgment. Before engaging in its analysis of the plaintiffs’ claims, the trial court noted that the parties agreed that the “recitation of the Pledge is part of a flag-salute ceremony meant to instill values of patriotism and good citizenship.” After noting that the plaintiffs acknowledged the voluntary nature of students’ participation in recitation of the Pledge, the court stated that the focal point of the plaintiffs’ complaint is that the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge is a “religious truth” that contradicts their beliefs.

Having already noted that the plaintiffs conceded the voluntary nature of the Pledge recitation, the court nevertheless addressed the plaintiffs’ contention that “such voluntariness violates the express language” of the Pledge statute mandating daily recitation. The court pointed out that the statute’s mandatory language extends only to teachers.

After a review of federal and state law in regard to the Pledge and the inclusion of the phrase “under God,” the trial court concluded that the insertion of the phrase had not converted the recitation of the Pledge from a political exercise into a prayer, thus the recitation of it does not constitute an affirmation of a “religious truth.”

The court then turned to the plaintiffs’ claim that having the students endure the daily recitation of the phrase “under God” violates their equal protection rights guaranteed by the state constitution. The court rejected their argument that daily recitation of the phrase “under God” creates a classification on the basis of religion, implicating the fundamental rights of free exercise of religion, free speech, and free expression, which would invoke a strict scrutiny standard of review.

Instead, the trial court applied the rational basis test to the Pledge law because it determined the law did not burden a protected class or a fundamental right. Under that test, the Pledge law would pass constitutional muster if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.

Applying that analysis, the court concluded, based on federal and state history of the Pledge, that daily recitation is “rationally related to these constitutional and statutory obligations, because the phrase serves as an acknowledgment of the Founding Fathers’ political philosophy, and the historical and religious traditions of the United States.”

The trial court also found that because the state statute and ABRSD’s policy are based on the same equal protection guarantees in the state constitution, the Pledge law passed muster. The court said that “[t]his legitimate public purpose transcends any harm the [plaintiffs] purport to suffer as a result of hearing this phrase each day.” 

Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Reg. Sch. Dist., No. MIC 2010-04261 (Mass. Sup. Ct. June 5, 2012)

[Editor's Note: In May 2012, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press article in the Lebanon Daily News, which reported that hours after the American Civil Liberties Union brought suit against the Brownsville Area School District on behalf of a middle school student claiming she was being punished for sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance, the school district agreed that it would not discipline the student for sitting. James Davis, BASD’s attorney, said that the unidentified student’s decision not to stand is a constitutionally-protected right, essentially agreeing with ACLU’s claims.]

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