You would think public schools would have figured out by now how to handle saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s simple, really: Students don’t have to stand for the Pledge. They don’t have to give a reason. And they certainly cannot get punished for sitting it out. That’s true whether we’re talking about atheists who don’t want to pledge that we’re a nation “Under God” or Jehovah’s Witnesses who consider it idolatry.
But officials at Southside High School in the Elmira City School District in New York never got the memo. There, an atheist student has been made to feel like shit by her teacher for not standing up during the daily recitation.
According to a letter to the district’s superintendent and principal from the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the problem has been going on for a while:
The student in question, currently a sophomore, is an atheist and does not wish to participate in the Pledge exercise in any manner, because she objects to the “under God” language and feels that any level of participation in the exercise validates that affirmation. As such, she has attempted to simply sit at her desk during the exercise in an undisruptive manner. When she has done this, however, she has been instructed by her teacher to stand, at the risk of disciplinary or retaliatory measures if she refuses to do so. Moreover, in front of her classmates, this student has been told by her teacher that failure to stand for the Pledge is disrespectful to America and to military personnel in particular, and thus her patriotism and national loyalty have been publicly called into question.
Furthermore, we have been advised that coercion with regard to participation in the Pledge exercise at Southside High goes beyond just the classroom mentioned above. We have been informed that teachers — and even an administrator — in your school have inappropriately pressured students to participate in the Pledge exercise. For example, students have been told that nonparticipation is disrespectful and unpatriotic, that nonparticipation would itself be disruptive, and that participation is expected because nonparticipation would encourage others to opt out.
The AHA’s request is simple: Students and teachers need to be informed that standing for the Pledge is optional, and teachers must be told that they cannot pressure students (like the anonymous sophomore) to stand up when they don’t want to, nor can they punish anyone who sits it out.
As a teacher myself, it’s hard to even fathom that there are people out there who take the ritual so damn seriously. I would never get in the way of students who want to say it, but anyone who thinks the Pledge is anything more than a bunch of words kids have been drilled into reciting is sorely mistaken. If you really want to support our country, there are better ways to do it than having children echo some lines towards a piece of cloth.
“Forcing students to participate in the Pledge against their will is an infringement on their constitutional rights,” said American Humanist Association executive director, Roy Speckhardt. “By singling out students who do not wish to participate, the school is discriminating against children who are good without a god.”
“Federal courts have consistently upheld the right of students to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance as a matter of free speech and freedom of conscience,” said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “Since the Pledge exercise defines patriotism in terms of God-belief, it’s perfectly understandable that many good, patriotic atheist children and families would want to exercise their right to opt out.”
The AHA, you may recall, tried to eliminate recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance altogether in Massachusetts, but the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled against them.
That said, I would hope that, even with the end of the school year upon us, district officials react swiftly and assure the AHA this won’t happen again.
I also hope that the sophomore student who made this issue known eventually feels safe enough to make herself known. Even if the teachers and students at her school seem to be against her, there’s a lot of support people around the country will want to send in her direction.
(Image via Shutterstock)