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Family sues Acton-Boxborough school system over pledge

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / March 4, 2012
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An atheist couple with three children in the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District is suing the district to remove the words “under God’’ from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The family, which has remained anonymous, contends that the pledge is discriminatory and violates the Equal Rights Amendment in the Massachusetts Constitution, according to its lawyer, David Niose of Fitchburg. The amendment expressly prohibits discrimination based on race or religion, he said.

Acton-Boxborough’s superintendent, Stephen Mills, denies any discrimination by the district.

“The Acton-Boxborough public schools absolutely do not discriminate against students on the basis of whether they say the Pledge of Allegiance or not,’’ said Mills. “It’s absolutely voluntary to say the pledge. We value diversity.’’

But Niose said because the pledge includes the phrase “under God,’’ it associates patriotism with religion.

“The exercise itself discriminates against them,’’ he said of his clients. “There is a religious truth claim within the daily patriotic exercise. Patriotism is defined in terms of religious truth. If you are a patriot, you believe in God; if not, you are a second-class citizen.’’

Oral arguments were made in Middlesex Superior Court during a Feb. 13 hearing before Judge Jane Haggerty, and the sides are awaiting her ruling. The case was filed in 2010.

Massachusetts public school teachers lead students in reciting the pledge - “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’’ - at the start of classes each day.

Mills said students are not required to recite the pledge, or they can omit the phrase “under God’’ while joining classmates in reciting the rest of the pledge. He said Acton-Boxborough is simply following state law, which requires school districts to have the pledge recited in front of an American flag every morning.

“It would be illegal if they didn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance,’’ he said. “The plaintiffs’ issue isn’t with me or the Acton-Boxborough schools; it’s with the state Constitution.’’

Mills said neither he nor any of his principals have received complaints about the pledge.

“It absolutely came out of the blue,’’ he said of the lawsuit.

Niose said while students can opt out of saying the pledge, they are isolated from classmates by doing so. “They can sit silently and watch the class define patriotism that excludes them,’’ he said.

It’s an issue that the family had dealt with for years, Niose said, before they finally decided to take action. He said they are pursuing the case anonymously to protect their children from potential backlash or bullying.

“They are an ordinary family, they pay taxes, and yet the kids go to school every day to face a message that because of their religious beliefs, they are second-class citizens,’’ he said.

Niose said the pledge has been challenged before but this is the first time based on state, rather than federal, law.

“It’s been overlooked for too long,’’ Niose said. “The Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment really has teeth. It’s something that forces everyone to think outside the box. It’s kind of exciting.’’

Niose said the Equal Rights Amendment is strong because it expressly prohibits discrimination based on religion, while the US Constitution is not as specific.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Pledge of Allegiance was first published in a periodical, the Youth’s Companion, on Sept. 8, 1892, as “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and Justice for all.’’ It was written by Francis Bellamy, an assistant editor of the Youth’s Companion.

The words “the flag of the United States of America’’ were substituted in 1924, and the pledge was officially recognized by the US government in 1942.

In 1943, the US Supreme Court ruled that no person can be required to recite the pledge.

In 1954, at President Eisenhower’s urging, Congress added “under God’’ to the wording.

According to the 1954 legislation, citizens should stand up and place their right hand over their heart while reciting the pledge.

Andrew Walther, vice president for communication for the Knights of Columbus, said the Catholic fraternal organization was instrumental in the movement to add “under God.’’

“We have a long tradition in this country that our rights come from above and beyond government, namely God,’’ Walther said.

The Knights of Columbus has joined the Acton-Boxborough case, siding with the school district to help protect “under God’’ from being removed from the pledge.

“We put it there, and thought it was a good thing to have it in there, and we continue to believe that today,’’ Walther said.

Walther said the organization has been involved in other cases challenging the pledge’s wording.

According to the group’s website, atheist Michael Newdow and a number of coplaintiffs in 2005 asked the US District Court in Sacramento to declare the pledge unconstitutional.

In 2006, the federal court ruled against the pledge, and the Knights of Columbus took the case to the US Court of Appeals.

On March 11, 2010, the Appeals Court issued a decision upholding the constitutionality of the pledge.

In 2007, Newdow filed a similar lawsuit against the school system in Hanover, N.H., on behalf of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and several local plaintiffs.

In 2009, a US District Court judge ruled that the pledge - including the words “under God’’ - did not violate the Constitution, and dismissed the lawsuit.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at

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