Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Hanover School District

Becket Role:


Decision Date:
June 21, 2011
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

Case Summary

The year was 2007, the night—Halloween, but trick-or-treaters dressed as ghosts and hobgoblins weren’t the only ones stirring up fanciful fears in New England. No, Dr. Michael Newdow, an atheist and ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, along with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), filed suit to silence the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools across New Hampshire. Why? They found the phrase “under God” spooky.

Representing three New Hampshire families and the Knights of Columbus, Becket intervened, urging the federal district court to dismiss Newdow’s third suit attacking the Pledge in less than 7 years.

After losing at the district court, Newdow appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. The Founder and now President Emeritus of Becket, Seamus Hasson, personally defended the Pledge as the quintessential expression of American political philosophy. “The Constitution doesn’t ban the word God from public discourse, in California or New Hampshire, in the Pledge or anywhere else,” Hasson declared.

Mr. Hasson demonstrated that historic appeals to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are not primarily religious. Instead, such phrases embody our Founder’s political philosophy. By adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 (reaffirmed in 2002), Congress not only contrasted the mutually exclusive conceptions of human rights envisioned by the United States and the U.S.S.R., but affirmed that our rights come from an authority higher than the State.

In November 2010, the First Circuit joined every other appellate court to rule on the issue by affirming the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. The Court unanimously held that the primary effect of voluntarily reciting the Pledge, in accordance with the New Hampshire School Patriot Act, “is not the advancement of religion, but the advancement of patriotism through a pledge to the flag as a symbol of the nation.”

The First Circuit flatly rejected FFRF’s assumption that children who decline to participate in the Pledge become “outsiders based on their beliefs about religion” for one simple reason: “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.”

Dr. Newdow appealed to the Supreme Court. In June 2011, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Perhaps it’s time for Newdow to find a different haunt.

Case Information

Becket Role:
Case Start Date:
October 31, 2007
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire
Supreme Court Status:
Cert Denied
Practice Area(s):