A spat over a high school student’s decision to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance has been favorably resolved. The administrators of Southside High School in Elmira, N.Y., have agreed to allow a student to sit during the Pledge in response to a letter from the American Humanist Association (AHA).
According to that letter, a Southside teacher had originally refused to allow the student to opt out of the Pledge; the student objects to it because she is an atheist, and does not wish to recite the words “under God.”
Observes the letter, “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.”
It added, “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.”
The letter goes on to state that other students also reported feeling coerced into reciting the Pledge by teachers and administrators.
The Elmira School Board now claims this is the first they’ve heard of the allegations and claim they’re aware that students cannot be forced to participate in the Pledge. The courts settled this issue long ago: In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students had a constitutional right to opt out. The Board appears to accept this. According to the Elmira Star-Gazette, it sent an email reminder to all school administrators outlining students’ legal rights to refuse to recite the Pledge and salute the flag.
As long as Southside administrators adhere to the law, the issue is settled. But it shouldn’t have been an issue at all. Public school students have well-established legal rights to freedom of expression, and in 2014, there’s really no excuse for any educator to be ignorant of what, exactly, those rights entail.
Fortunately, most educators understand and respect the law, something I know quite well. As a public school high school student, I too opted out of the Pledge—though not for religious reason (blame an emerging interest in politics). Even in my tiny Appalachian high school, faculty and staff respected my constitutional rights and I quietly exercised my free speech until graduation. I didn’t make that choice out of any particular animus toward America, our troops, or even the religious perspectives of my fellow classmates, and I doubt this anonymous Southside student did, either.
Even if she had, she’d still have a right to refuse to say the Pledge. It’s unconscionable that a person charged with the education of vulnerable young people would attempt to coerce one of them into violating her deeply held personal beliefs.
High school is a time of transition. Students are encountering new ideas and forming their own perspectives about sensitive topics related to religion and politics. The courts have long recognized this, and that’s why they’ve consistently ruled to protect students from school-endorsed coercion to participate in a variety of events—prayer, for example, as well as the Pledge.
Let’s hope other schools look at Southside’s example as a reminder to make sure they’re upholding the law.