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Why a School District Is Apologizing to an Atheist Teen Who Refused to Stand for the Pledge of Allegiance

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An atheist teenager claims that he attempted to opt-out and sit quietly during the Pledge of Allegiance in his high school classroom, but that his teacher loudly accused him of being disrespectful and threatened to discipline him in front of his peers.

The story surrounding the unnamed student — a ninth grader at Oak Park High School in Oak Park, California — is being circulated by the American Humanist Association. The atheist group is also responsible for the “Don’t Say the Pledge” campaign, which encourages Americans to refuse to recite the Pledge until God’s name is removed.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the American Humanist Association's legal arm, sent a letter to the school district alleging that the teacher violated the student's "constitutional right to refrain from participating in the school’s daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance," according to a press release.

The letter, dated September 29, asked that the district affirm that students are permitted to opt out of the Pledge, while also asking for assurances that incidents like this will not happen again.

The text reads, in part:

[The student] has attempted to simply sit at his desk during the exercise in an undisruptive manner. When he did this, however, he was reprimanded by his teacher … in front of the entire class, and was even accused of being “disrespectful.” The teacher, in a loud and “yelling voice,” further told the student that he would be removed from class if he ever refused to stand for the Pledge again. The student felt so intimidated by the teacher’s actions that he felt compelled to stand during the Pledge exercise since the incident, against his sincerely held beliefs.

An attorney for the American Human Association said that this is intolerable and, if true, a violation of the student's First Amendment rights.

The letter also cited West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, a 1943 Supreme Court case, which found that students can't be compelled to salute the flag or say the Pledge.

"Public school students have the right to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance," said Monica Miller, an attorney with the group. "Compelling a student to do otherwise is a violation of the fundamental freedoms of speech and consciousness guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

And on Tuesday, just one day after the American Humanist Association voiced its complaint, the organization said that the school district responded with "written assurances" that officials will now allow students to opt out of the recitation.

"We will be notifying all staff about students’ fundamental First Amendment rights as they pertain to this issue," Oak Creek Unified School District superintendent Anthony W. Knight reportedly wrote. "[P]lease know that it has been corrected and the teacher will apologize to the student. The parents will also be contacted and apologized to."

Similar stories have emerged of late, with the American Humanist Association representing children and teens who claim to have been punished for refusing to recite the Pledge. These cases appear to be a part of the atheist organization's strategy in implementing its "Don't Say the Pledge" campaign.

In this Thursday, May 23, 2013 photo, first grader Mariah Nevarez, center, says the Pledge of Allegiance with classmates before the start of school at Jay W. Jeffers Elementary School, in Las Vegas. Nevarez is one of more than 800 students that attend the school where 83 percent of the incoming kindergartners don t speak English. Nevada is home to the highest density of English language learners in the country, at 31 percent. But with graduation rates among those students standing at 29 percent, and with no state funding earmarked to help them, some are hinting at a civil rights lawsuit. Credit: AP AP

David Niose, the American Humanist Association’s legal director, said in a statement earlier this month that public schools are “stigmatizing atheist and humanist children” by facilitating the daily recitation of the Pledge. So, his group is arguing that students should exercise their right not to participate.

“[It] violates the principles of equal rights and nondiscrimination,” he said of the daily recitation.

The group’s main contention is that “under God” was not added to the Pledge until 1954 and that the original version, composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, did not reference the Lord. They advocate for a return to the more secular version of the proclamation.

Read more about the Pledge’s history here.

(H/T: Friendly Atheist)

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Front page image via Shutterstock.com

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