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Massachusetts Atheists? - Comments

Mroberts3's Avatar Comment 1 by Mroberts3

I'm studying at Boston University right now. Maybe I should seriously look into this...

Thu, 01 Feb 2007 21:48:00 UTC | #18271

nine9s's Avatar Comment 2 by nine9s

There are all sorts of bizarre laws on the books that no one takes seriously anymore. There are lots of comedy books out there that document them.

Thu, 01 Feb 2007 22:15:00 UTC | #18272

wayne's Avatar Comment 3 by wayne

There is currently an effort to repeal a bunch of these laws here in Mass. Apparently it's illegel to be a "tramp", a "vagabond, to fornicate. Only liscenced physicians can give tattos.

"God Save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." Or, you know, the FSM.

Thu, 01 Feb 2007 22:36:00 UTC | #18277

nowoo's Avatar Comment 4 by nowoo

Is there any way to force a test case, take it to the Supreme Court, and get this kind of unconstitutional law off the books nationwide? Or could that actually backfire in today's US?

Thu, 01 Feb 2007 23:32:00 UTC | #18284

Liveliest Crib's Avatar Comment 5 by Liveliest Crib

Hi all. This is my first time posting here. Since I'm an attorney, and have studied and written about quite a bit of Constitutional Law, I thought I'd chime in.

First, Massachusetts certainly isn't the only state to have laws like this on the books, and yes, they're usually holdovers from a time long past. And yes, under current Constitutional holdings, the laws are null and void. Generally, when one party from one state manages to get his case up to the US Supreme Court, and the Court strikes down that state's law as unconstitutional, you're not likely to see a flurry of other states repealing similar laws. They'll just go unenforced, unless the state feels particularly testy. To wit:

Is there any way to force a test case, take it to the Supreme Court, and get this kind of unconstitutional law off the books nationwide? Or could that actually backfire in today's US?

Well, under precedent, the law would be unconstitutional, and it would likely be declared so in the lower courts if a state were to enforce it. In fact, it probably violates the Massachusetts state constitution anyway. And actually, with the current Supreme Court as bad as it is, I'm confident the majority of justices would still uphold the precedents on the books.

However, the concern is not unwarranted. After all, if there really were all these different laws of yore on the books of many states, what were they doing? Just flagrantly violating the Constitution? Actually, no. Not only was it held for a long, long time that the federal government had no jurisdiction to force the states to comply with the Constitution, the Bill of Rights itself was deemed to limit the powers of only the federal government. Everything else was a matter for the democracies of each state. (Such as they were.)

Until the Civil War. The 14th Amendment fundamentally restructured federalism, and it's not in dispute today that the federal courts have jurisdiction to enforce the Constitution on the states. Nevertheless, there remain some concerns about precisely which rights in the Bill of Rights are incorporated into the 14th Amendment, such that they apply to the states. With the First Amendment, there's a unique problem not encountered with the other amendments -- textually, it only purports to limit the powers of Congress, not state legislatures:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (emphasis mine)

There are indeed Justices on the Court who disavow the "Incorporation Doctrine" altogether, and Justice Clarence Thomas, for instance, believes the First Amendment leaves it to the states to legislate statutes precisely like the one that prompted this thread. So, I'm not so sure I'd be anxious to test this.

Ahh, yes. An unfortunate truth. Even from its inception, America was hostile to atheists and other non-religious people. Not the famous Founding Fathers we know and love, but they were forced to make many compromises with the authoritarians in their midst.

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 00:33:00 UTC | #18293

Joadist's Avatar Comment 6 by Joadist

Liveliest Crib,

My understanding is the Clarence Thomas takes issue with the 14th amendment.

I believe I have seen arguments that while the Federal Government may not establish a religion, any state may do so. South Carolina considered such legistslation if memory serves.

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 00:55:00 UTC | #18296

Noodly's Avatar Comment 7 by Noodly

The UK still has a blasphemy law which was last successfully prosecuted in 1977:

Nearly all these laws only protect the local dominant religion and need to be actively challenged.

The opening sentence of chapter 2 in TGD is clearly blasphemous, but the church is too scared to tackle it, preferring to keep an out of date law on the statute books rather than see it humuliated in public.

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 01:26:00 UTC | #18302

Liveliest Crib's Avatar Comment 8 by Liveliest Crib


My understanding is the Clarence Thomas takes issue with the 14th amendment.

I'm not sure what you mean. That is, he might not like the 14th Amendment, but he can't "take issue" with its legitimacy as part of the Constitution. If you mean that he does not believe that the 14th Amendment makes the First Amendment's enumerated rights and power limitations applicable to the states, I do believe that is correct.

I believe I have seen arguments that while the Federal Government may not establish a religion, any state may do so. South Carolina considered such legistslation if memory serves.

That is indeed the argument. It wouldn't surprise me if South Carolina recently tried it, but I don't know for sure. Missouri recently tried to pass a law that would have declared Christianity to be its officially recognized majority religion, whatever that means.

And of course, there was the recent case in which an atheist parent fought to prevent his daughter's public school from holding the official pledge of allegiance recitation on Establishment Clause grounds. The Ninth Circuit Court (renowned and reviled for its more "radical" stances) ruled in his favor, and held that a public school could not hold an official session in which the words "under god" were recited by students. Then, the Supreme Court, in a rather cowardly move, overturned the Ninth Circuit, but not on First Amendment grounds. Instead, the Court held that because the father did not have custody of his daughter, he had no standing to sue on her behalf in the first place. The lawsuit went away; the central issue did not.

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 02:09:00 UTC | #18304

stevieb's Avatar Comment 9 by stevieb

we've looked into this before; there weren't any legislators who were interested in pursuing this, especially with the gay marriage issue so much in the public eye. In addition, American Atheists didn't think it was a wise exertion of energy when no one takes the law seriously anyway.

we're still looking for someone who lives in lowell to help fight the recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the city council meetings. I've sent a few articles to this site, but they were not put up.


Fri, 02 Feb 2007 02:43:00 UTC | #18307

BaronOchs's Avatar Comment 10 by BaronOchs

contumeliously? I can hardly even say that!

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 04:57:00 UTC | #18324

zoro's Avatar Comment 11 by zoro

Liveliest Crib: Thank you for your posts. In your latest post (#20363), you state (re. the Newdow case): "the Supreme Court, in a rather cowardly move..." I had a similar reaction to the Court's decision, but then I began to wonder.

Now, what I wonder (and solicit your opinion) about is your view (from your legal perspective) of the idea that if, in any democracy, its judicial and legislative systems are to survive (or at least, not be severely embattled), then they must follow (not lead) customs. As the saying goes: "Custom is king." A case in point seems to be our Supreme Court's first abortion decision, which seems to have been ahead of custom -- and the result was a strengthening of the "Religious Reich".

No doubt the relevance of my inquiry to "freedom from religion" is obvious, but let me "spell it out" as some questions. Do you think that Michael Newdow's (courageous) attempts are in reality ill-advised? Would "the humanist cause" be better served by efforts such as those of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al. to try, first, to change "customs" -- and then, maybe decades from now, let the (cowardly -- but in their own way and for their own purposes, "wise") politicians and justices just follow the people? Do you think that, in spite of Newdow's bravery and intelligence, he's actually doing more harm "to the cause" than good?

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 05:19:00 UTC | #18327

debaser71's Avatar Comment 12 by debaser71

If you are in MA and get arrested of a crime, say something minor, like spitting on the bus, but while you spit you say "God damn it" or something, a prosecutor can add extra offenses like blasphemy to tack on extra time to a possible conviction.

So until that happens the law most likely won't change.

btw, I went to BU too. I noticed that this week during that terror alert in Boston one on the bridges that had that electronic toy thing hanging from iot was the BU bridge I would walk across everyday to get to class (and to Kenmore Square).

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 06:23:00 UTC | #18330

Bloodwedding's Avatar Comment 13 by Bloodwedding

I am a vocal Massachusetts atheist (and have yet to be arrested for it -- I also wear a goatee, which under Mass law is illegal without a permit). Unfortunately, lately we've been defending against an invasion of Mooninites and haven't had the resources to engage in any worthwhile activities such as demonstrating rationality or reason.

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 06:36:00 UTC | #18333

atheist1976's Avatar Comment 14 by atheist1976

once again the "Land of the free" speaks!

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 10:05:00 UTC | #18362

linck's Avatar Comment 15 by linck

If anyone would take the law serious they would have to close down the wonderful shop at Harvard Square that sells all kinds of cool stickers/ kitchen magnets/ buttons with slogans like:

People who believe in hell deserve it

It you talk to God you're spiritual - if the talks back you are nuts

Ignorance - making people feel righteous for over 2000 yrs

The only miracle of Christianity is how anyone could swallow this shit

God loves you (...some restrictions may apply)

I found Jesus!...He was behind the sofa all this time

And a button that adorned my back pack said:

- Just another soulless atheist in search of world peace and harmony -

I was sick of people "naturally" asuming I am catholic (sic!) because I am "such a nice young woman".

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 15:27:00 UTC | #18388

Liveliest Crib's Avatar Comment 16 by Liveliest Crib


You do make good points. In fact, under the "Political Questions" doctrine, courts are indeed advised to consider matters of prudence when determining whether to adjudicate a matter at all. Issues whose political natures are so volatile that they might better be left to the political branches of government to work out themselves (that's not the whole doctrine....just one nuance of it) should sometimes be deemed non-justiciable.

Of course, the Newdow case was quite obviously not a political question (for many reasons I won't belabor), and I suppose my problem with the Court's decision is the rather obvious lengths to which they went to avoid the question at hand merely for fear of the consequences of resolving it. Imagine, for instance, that they had done that for Brown v. Board of Education which struck down segregation in public schools as a violation of Equal Protection. Moreover, their decision that a parent has no standing to sue on behalf of his child merely because he did not have custody of her at the time was a departure from standing law in general, one whose consequences might not be as innocuous as even deciding that "under god" could be left in the pledge.

Nevertheless, I suppose "cowardly" is a less-than-charitable term.

As for whether Newdow's lawsuit was a savvy political move for the rights of atheists, I'm inclined to have doubts as well. Reciting the pledge is viewed (rightly or wrongly) by so many people as a trivial issue, one which, even if it does violate the law, does so de minimis. I do think that the current Dawkins/Harris/Dennet movement is garnering a (predictably) better reception.

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 18:16:00 UTC | #18404

zoro's Avatar Comment 17 by zoro

Liveliest Crib: Thank you for your informative post (#20466). It never ceases to amaze me how little I know and how helpful Google can be -- once one knows what to look for! I had never previously heard of the "Political Questions doctrine". What a complicated history it has had. (In contrast, for more than 30 years, I led a "sheltered life" doing scientific research.)

I'll rely on your judgement that, from a legal perspective, the Newdow case was "quite obviously not a political question". (I did read his brief shortly after he submitted it to the Supreme Court; therefore, I did see his complaint.) Yet I wonder (but wouldn't ask you to spend any more of your time answering my naive questions) if the Court's next step (in reaction to Newdow's new submissions) might be to broaden the scope of the "Political Questions" doctrine, because given Congressional reaction to "the Pledge case", it's obviously an extremely hot "political question."

Personally, I'd certainly prefer if the Court basically said "let the people settle this", rather than issue another of its (to me, maddening) "de minimis" or "ceremonial deism" rulings. Otherwise, I'm worried that humanists lose whichever way the Court rules: if it rules in favor of Newdow (and as far as I'm concerned, obviously it should, since "under God" is a clear violation of the Constitution), then I wouldn't be surprised if a "suitable" Constitutional Amendment will gain sufficient support to be enacted, weakening the wall between Church and State; on the other hand, if the Court rules against Newdow, then I expect that we'll find it even more difficult to exterminate the god meme in this country. Thus, again, I hope that the Court, once again, finds a way to duck the issue -- but this time (as you suggest), not "with a departure from standing law... whose consequences might not be... innocuous."

Sat, 03 Feb 2007 03:45:00 UTC | #18422

grolaw's Avatar Comment 18 by grolaw

Counselor Crib is correct regarding the MA Statute. I am also a practicing attorney and simply wish to add one point:

There are no provisions in any state that I know of to "sweep off the books" all outdated and unenforceable laws.

We carry all sorts of outmoded statutes because our courts should not enforce the unenforceable and because the cost of completely overhauling a whole state's statutes and code of regulations would be grossly prohibitive. (*And, what a mess we would have if we undertook such a project - certain political types would always find ways to insert or delete special provisions for their political allies...*)

Sat, 03 Feb 2007 07:12:00 UTC | #18428

killer_rabbit79's Avatar Comment 19 by killer_rabbit79

Massachusetts is stupid. Did anyone hear about the bomb scare there? The entire city of Boston was shut down so the police and national security could retrieve a terrorist WMD that turned out to just be an LED sign that was a part of Adult Swim's guerilla advertising campaign for their popular show Aqua Teen Hungerforce. These signs were put up in nine other major American Cities including New York and Chicago and none of these cities had this problem. The advertisers have terrorist charges and a charge for making the mayor of Boston mad (which is chargable for imprissonment). This is just the icing on the cake of stupidity.

Sat, 03 Feb 2007 19:45:00 UTC | #18462

Prometheus's Avatar Comment 20 by Prometheus

I'm a life-long Mass resident, and these laws, as people have said, are old 'blue laws' that no one has paid attention to in decades. It's worth bringing up however, that similarly ancient laws have been the reason for Massachusetts liquor stores to be prohibitted from selling alcohol on Sundays (until very recently...i'm talking a few years). There are still similar laws in effect for hunting, and some other things, all which are based on religious dogma. So while this particular law doesn't really have any effect on MA residents, it's still a dangerous thing to have in the books, and there exist some other dogmatic laws which are still adhered rather strictly.

Sun, 04 Feb 2007 17:57:00 UTC | #18524

WeBecameThey's Avatar Comment 21 by WeBecameThey

Like Prometheus, I have lived in Massachusetts for almost 20 years (my family moved here when I was almost one). And have never been, nor have I seen anyone arrested on account of blasphemy. So yeah, blue law, along the lines of it being illegal to partake in oral sex in the commonwealth (if I remember my list of outrageous laws correctly)

Thu, 03 Sep 2009 19:05:00 UTC | #394247