BOSTON (CBS/AP) — The highest court in Massachusetts ruled Friday that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools does not discriminate against atheists.
The Supreme Judicial Court said the words "under God" in the pledge reflect a patriotic practice, not a religious one.
Read: The SJC Ruling
"We hold that the recitation of the pledge, which is entirely voluntary, violates neither the Constitution nor the statute," Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote, later adding "it is not a litmus test for defining who is or is not patriotic."
"Although the words "under God" undeniably have a religious tinge, courts that have considered the history of the pledge and the presence of those words have consistently concluded that the pledge, notwithstanding its reference to God, is a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one."
An atheist family from Acton sued in 2010 claiming that the daily recitation of the pledge in classrooms violated their three children's constitutional rights.
The family, who are not identified in the suit, claimed the ruling insinuates that nonbelievers are less patriotic. "No child should go to public school every day, from kindergarten to grade 12, and be faced with an exercise that portrays his or her religious group as less patriotic," said David Niose, the plaintiffs' attorney.
"The pledge itself is voluntary," said Acton-Boxborough Superintendent Stephen Mills. "All kids know that and teachers tell them at the beginning of the school year. Occasionally a child opts out and if that happens the teacher says that's OK, just sit quietly."
Mills also believes the plaintiffs' issue is much broader.
"They want the words 'under God' taken out of the pledge of allegiance, which is their right to advocate for. But as a local school superintendent I have no authority to change the wording of our nation's pledge of allegiance."
A lower court judge last year ruled that "under God" did not violate the school's anti-discrimination policy or state law.
The family appealed.
"We likewise reject the plaintiffs' contention that, when some children choose to exercise their constitutionally protected right not to say the words "under God," there is necessarily conveyed a message that the children are "unpatriotic."" Justice Barbara Lenk wrote in Friday's ruling.
"Patriotism is not a legal status or benefit that is conferred or withheld by the State, and it is certainly not limited to those who recite the pledge in its entirety. There is no litmus test for patriotism. Schools might conduct patriotic exercises, but they do not define who is and who is not patriotic."
The decision only applies to Massachusetts because the pledge's language is defined by federal law.
WBZ-TV's Beth Germano contributed to this report.
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