School Prevails in Pledge Case

May 9, 2014

The daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools does not violate the Equal Rights Amendment of Massachusetts state constitution. This long standing practice was upheld by the Supreme Judicial Court in the case of Doe & others v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District & others.  The decision, written by Chief Justice Ireland, was rendered on May 9, 2014.

The case was brought by atheist parents of Acton and Acton-Boxborough students.  The dispute centered on the inclusion of the words “under God” and the state statute, M.G.L. c. 71, sec. 69, requiring schools to start each school day with the Pledge. 

In its decision for Acton-Boxborough, the SJC noted that recitation of the Pledge was completely optional.  Students are free to participate, not participate, or partially participate in the morning routine. The SJC further found that the plaintiffs did not allege or provide any evidence that the children were harmed or treated differently for their beliefs.  There was no evidence of bullying or harassment or differential treatment by administrators, staff, or their peers.  

Justice Ireland wrote:

“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 the parts that they do not find objectionable, the feeling of ‘stigma’ caused by seeing or hearing the program being provided to others is not a legally cognizable for the purposes of the equal rights amendment.”

Though the dispute centered on the Pledge of Allegiance, the impact of this case on other school programs and initiatives was also cognizable. The District argued that if the Pledge of Allegiance was declared unconstitutional because its message was inconsistent with religious beliefs of certain students and parents, programs teaching about evolution or human sexuality would be at risk also.  The SJC recognized the inherent problem that such a finding would create and rejected the plaintiff’s theory, saying, “[i]f we were to accept the plaintiff’s theory numerous programs and activities that are otherwise constitutional would be scuttled under the rubric of equal protection.”  

Attorney Geoffrey Bok, of Stoneman, Chandler & Miller, LLP was the lead attorney for Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, and was assisted by Attorney Andrea Bell, also of SCM.