American Atheists has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a teenager who says she’s been perpetually harassed by public school officials for remaining seated during the Pledge of Allegiance.
17-year-old Mo (not her real name) spent the past few years at Klein Oak High School in Klein, Texas exercising her right not to stand during the Pledge. Her teachers and her principals, completely ignoring the law that says she’s allowed to do that, constantly punished her for her decision. In some cases, when another student bullied her, they did nothing serious to put a stop to it.
You really have to see the allegations to get a sense of what she had to deal with:
As a freshman, Mo was written up (a form of punishment) by her World Geography teacher for remaining seated. When she told the principal what happened, the principal defended the teacher by saying he was allowed to write her up “because of his military service.” That teacher was never disciplined. In fact, on another occasion, he temporarily took away Mo’s phone because of her “lack of respect” for the Pledge. (The lawsuit also notes he read Bible passages to the students on multiple occasions.)
The following year, in journalism class, Mo’s teacher repeatedly told her to stand for the Pledge when she chose not to. That teacher even reported Mo to her guidance counselor… who also told her to stand. Neither adult was ever disciplined for “singling [Mo] out in class for peacefully and non-disruptively engaging in free speech.”
Last year, when Mo was a junior, her protest resulted in a classmate standing up and calling her a “bitch.” That same student later posted pictures on Snapchat, including one with the caption, “Like if you don’t respect [our] country then get the fuck out of it[.]” Despite a forced apology in front of the principal, that same student later told another classmate (within earshot of Mo), “There’s the bitch that sits for the Pledge.”
It didn’t get any better this past January when Mo was placed in the same sociology class as the bully. Trying to prevent another conflict, the principal removed Mo from the class… essentially, punishing her for what the bully was doing.
That led Mo’s mother to withdraw her from Klein Oak for a few months and pursue homeschooling instead, despite expenses eventually totaling more than $10,000.
That brings us to her senior year which is happening right now.
Are things better? Not even close. Mo came back to Klein Oak a few months ago and was back in that sociology teacher’s classroom. The bully (presumably passing the class last year) wasn’t there, but the teacher was apparently eager to take on that same role.
According to the lawsuit, he told students “that sitting for the Pledge was a privilege, not a right, and that people who sit for the Pledge are unappreciative and disrespectful, stating that all they do is take from society.” He also, on another occasion, “compared people who refuse to say the Pledge to Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.”
How the hell did this go from badgering, to bullying, to batshit crazy?
And how much of this nonsense should a student have to go through before enough is enough?
Mo and her mother, LaShan Arceneaux, aren’t waiting any longer to find out.
The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment that [Mo’s] rights were violated, compensatory, exemplary, and punitive damages against the individual defendants, legal fees, and an order that the Klein Independent School District immediately inform school employees of their obligations under the Constitution as they relate to student participation in the Pledge of Allegiance.
American Atheists has retained Randall L. Kallinen as local counsel. He has extensive civil rights and church-state separation litigation experience in Texas.
“Students do not lose their right to Free Speech at the schoolhouse steps,” said [attorney Randall L.] Kallinen. “The right not to be forced to stand for the Pledge has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1943.”
American Atheists says this is a violation of the First Amendment (free speech, establishment of religion, and free exercise of religion), the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection), and the Fifth Amendment (due process). The District’s actions, they say, also violate Texas law.
It is absolutely appalling that so many teachers in that building failed to respect Mo’s right to remain seated. It’s also appalling that the administrators did nothing significant to stop teachers and students from bullying and harassing Mo over her decision.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. This is a pattern that has repeated itself many times over. And the law was always on Mo’s side.
It’s easy to just blame this on “Texas,” but that’s not an excuse for public school officials to be ignorant or dismissive of the law. How on earth does the District even try to defend its actions?
We’ll find out soon. They had more than enough chances to make things right. Now it’s up to a judge to decide what their punishment should be.
(Image via Shutterstock)