The Commonwealth’s highest court struck a blow for compromise recently, when it ruled that the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t offend the Massachusetts Constitution or violate the rights of nonbelievers when the pledge is publicly recited. Instead, the decision endorsed common courtesy as the best way to handle honest differences of opinion around the pledge.
The case was brought four years ago by an atheist couple with children in the Acton-Boxborough school district. The parents argued that recitation of the pledge discriminates against nonbelievers.
Writing for a unanimous Supreme Judicial Court, Chief Justice Roderick Ireland dismissed that claim, noting what “has been obvious and understood” for decades: No Massachusetts school student is ever required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “Students are free, for any reason or for no reason at all, to recite it in its entirety, not recite it at all, or recite or decline to recite any part of it they choose, without fear of punishment.”
Neither freedom of conscience, nor separation of church and state, is threatened if reciting the pledge is truly voluntary. As the SJC ruling recognizes, civil society has room for widely divergent values, so long as dissenting views can be met with tolerance and forbearance.