- - Sunday, September 8, 2013

Terrified humanists cower at the word

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recently heard oral arguments in a case concerning a challenge to a Massachusetts law that requires public schools to lead students in saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The recitation, however, is wholly voluntary for students. A student may decline to say the pledge for any reason — or no reason at all.

The American Humanist Association and a few parents of schoolchildren have nevertheless sued the Acton-Boxborough School District. They seek to end recitation of the pledge because of the phrase “under God.”

Federal law on this question is settled. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a state statute that required students to salute the American flag. The court’s reasoning rested primarily on compelled-speech grounds.

Voluntary-recitation statutes, however, do not compel speech. Accordingly, plaintiffs in federal cases have sued under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. All such suits have ultimately failed.

With federal claims basically foreclosed, the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case have resorted to state constitutional equal protection and nondiscrimination claims. In a nutshell, they argue that being present while others say the words “under God” violates their rights.

Martha Coakley, the attorney general of Massachusetts and a liberal Democrat, has submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the defendants. Ms. Coakley persuasively argues that the recitation of the pledge does not classify students as theists or atheists, and it certainly does not distribute benefits or burdens to students based on their religious classification.

A bipartisan group led by Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi and Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina has also submitted an amicus curiae brief supporting the school district. While they make many of the same arguments as Ms. Coakley, they also bring a national perspective to the issue.

The plaintiffs concede that the purpose of reciting the pledge is to instill patriotism in students and to foster national unity. The members of Congress stress that striking the words “under God” from the pledge would undermine that purpose because students in different states would be reciting different pledges of allegiance. In short, to foster national unity there must be a national pledge.

As part of their argument, the plaintiffs assert that the recitation of the pledge helps to maintain a “theistic supremacy,” which enables society to stereotype and marginalize atheists. Ms. Coakley responds that while the pledge has some religious content, it is fundamentally a patriotic exercise and not a religious one. As noted earlier, the plaintiffs have conceded that the pledge is primarily patriotic, but they maintain that any religious content in the pledge is too much — an argument rejected by both the lower court and the Massachusetts attorney general.

If the Supreme Judicial Court were to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, future litigants still would have a great deal more work to do in scrubbing all remnants of religion from schools.

The recitation of the Gettysburg Address would have to be forbidden, as that is the origin of the phrase “under God.” The Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech each must also be banned, as they are laden with biblical allusions and references to God.

Other staples of public education would need to stricken from curriculums as well. Shakespeare would be out, lest students hear, for example, Claudius agonizing over whether he can honestly pray for forgiveness while retaining the rewards gained by his sin.

The intellectual history of America cannot be told without reference to theism. Removing religious references would not make public schools “neutral” on religious issues. It would make them inaccurate in their presentation of history.

In the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clauson, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that “we find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion.” The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts should similarly hold that there is no statutory or constitutional provision in the commonwealth that requires public schools to impose secularism on students.

A.J. Kritikos, 24, is a third-year student at Harvard Law School and a graduate of Georgetown University.

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