(CN) - A New Hampshire law requiring public schools to set aside time for students to voluntarily recite the Pledge of Allegiance, including the phrase "under God," does not violate the Constitution, the 1st Circuit ruled.
An atheist-agnostic couple and their three children, all members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, challenged the New Hampshire School Patriot Act, which requires public schools to allot time for students to voluntarily recite the pledge.
Students who don't wish to participate can "silently stand or remain seated, but shall be required to respect the rights of those pupils electing to participate," according to the law.
The couple initially sued Congress and the United States, along with their local school districts, claiming the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools violated the First Amendment.
Specifically, they argued that Congress violated the establishment and free exercise clauses in 1954, by adding the words "under God" to the pledge. They sought a court order demanding that Congress remove the phrase and that public school districts stop reciting the pledge.
A federal judge dismissed the federal defendants, and later tossed the couple's amended complaint against school districts in Hanover and Dresden.
Chief Judge Sandra Lynch said that the mere inclusion of the religious words "under God" in the pledge does not automatically make the law unconstitutional.
"It takes more than the presence of words with religious content to have the effect of advancing religion," Lynch wrote.
The federal appeals court in Boston said the pledge was more patriotic than proselytizing, grounded more in history than faith.
"In reciting the pledge, students promise fidelity to our flag and our nation, not to any particular God, faith, or church," Lynch wrote.
The court also rejected the foundation's claim that the law ostracizes children who choose not to recite the pledge.
"That premise is flawed," Lynch wrote. "Under the New Hampshire Act, both the choice to engage in the recitation of the Pledge and the choice not to do so are entirely voluntary."
And in the context of the whole pledge, the judge added, "the phrase 'under God' does not convey a message of endorsement."
The court similarly tossed the parents' claim that reciting the pledge in public schools unconstitutionally "coerces" their children into parroting "a purely religious ideology."
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