“The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Closed the Door on Atheist Equality” – David Niose

David Niose, legal director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center and past president of both the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America, visited with the Connecticut secular community yesterday attending the Hartford Area Humanists’ monthly meeting that was open to all our secular organizations as well as the public.  He discussed the recent decisions by the Supreme Court of the US and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. 

“Taking a punch,” is how Mr. Niose described what happened to the secular community last week regarding both high court decisions.  On Monday May 5th, in a 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of the town of Greece, NY allowing religious prayers to be offered at the start of local governmental meetings and thus chipping away at the separation of state and church.   Later that same week on Friday May 9th, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in a unanimous decision ruled in favor of Acton-Boxborough Regional School District & others declaring that the daily recitation of the phrase “under god” in the US Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the plaintiffs’ equal protection rights under the Massachusetts Constitution.

As the lead counsel in the Massachusetts case, Mr. Niose was particularly unsettled.  He described the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court as particularly liberal leaning with very strong equality language in their state constitution (i.e., the first state to allow gay marriage in Goodridge v Department of Public Health).  Our unique approach was arguing that “under god” violated the state’s equal protection measure and not the US Constitution’s guarantee of the separation of church and state.  He described the surprising unanimous ruling in favor of Acton-Boxborough as, “closing the door on Atheist equality.”   But as the door closes in Massachusetts it may be opening in New Jersey where Mr. Niose said there is a potential plaintiff willing to contest the “under god” phrase there.  “We are looking for our Goodridge,” Mr. Niose said referring to the case in Massachusetts that allowed gay marriage and resulted in now 17 states with gay marriage and challenges in almost every other state.  States like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut with strong equality language in their state constitutions are ideal for the “under god” challenge.

Mr. Niose stressed the secular movement’s identify oriented approach in the fight for equality.  Along those lines, The American Humanist Association and the Humanist Institute are asking for secular individuals to sign up to give secular invocations in response to the Greece v Galloway decision (link).  After his discussion Mr. Niose stayed to mingle with the audience answering questions and striking up conversation.  He also had copies of his book “Nonbeliever Nation” available for signing.