Oral arguments were heard in a Massachusetts Superior Court on Monday over a lawsuit filed by an atheist couple who believe that their children are being discriminated against because the Pledge of Allegiance – which is said every day in Mass. public school classrooms under state law – contains the phrase "under God."
"The daily recitation in public schools of a pledge declaring that the nation is 'under God' is discriminatory toward atheists and humanists," David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association and lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, stated.
"No child should go to school each day to have the class declare that her religious beliefs are wrong in an exercise that portrays her and her family as less patriotic than believers."
The parents Niose is representing in the case, who are identified only as John and Jane Doe in the suit, have three children enrolled in Acton Public Schools and the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, the defendants in the suit.
Niose told the judge that the pledge discriminates against the children and "defines patriotism according to a particular religious belief," The Associated Press reports. The suit, originally filed in November 2010, says the three children want to participate in the act of patriotism but don't want to violate their atheistic beliefs.
But the district's superintendent, Stephen Mills, told CBS Boston that his school district is just following the letter of the law.
"Students have a right to not say it all, the entire pledge," said Mills, who is also named as a defendant in the case. "I would be acting illegally if the kids didn't say pledge of allegiance."
According to Diana Verm, legal counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, this case is somewhat unique.
In the past, those who have filed suits against the saying of the pledge have primarily argued that it violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says the government cannot endorse a particular religion over another. This is the first case Verm is aware of that appeals exclusively to a state's equal protection laws.
In October 2011, The Becket Fund filed a motion to intervene in the case on behalf of Daniel and Ingrid Joyce, the parents of two students from the same school district who want to continue saying the pledge in class just as it is. The organization is also representing the Knights of Columbus – an organization that helped get "under God" included in the pledge back in 1954 – in the case.
"We intervened in the lawsuit because we wanted our clients' voices to be heard, that there are people who value the pledge and its political meaning and they want to continue saying it," Verm told The Christian Post on Tuesday.
The motion to intervene essentially makes the Joyces and the Knights of Columbus co-defendants along with the school district, so that their views can all be expressed in court.
While the plaintiffs believe removing "under God" from the pledge will allow them to finally be patriotic while saying it, Verm says removing the phrase violates others' sense of patriotism.
"Basically, the words 'under God' are a statement of political philosophy that mean that our rights come not from the state, but from something higher than the state," said Verm. "So students understand that when they say the Pledge of Allegiance they're not [saying] a prayer, but they're participating in a patriotic exercise that recognizes America's rich tradition of natural rights."
The judge who heard Monday's arguments did not immediately rule on the case.