In the fall of 2014, I was in my first year of teaching fourth grade in a Baltimore public school. Our class had an established routine: The kids would trickle in and could chat for a couple of minutes before the bell rang to start the day. The Pledge of Allegiance would then come over the loudspeaker, we would all stand and recite it and then we would begin working.
That routine was uneventful until one day in October, when one of my students, whom I’ll call “Michael,” came into class and softly requested to ask me a question. He then said that his parents had told him that it was against their religion to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and he asked for permission to sit when the Pledge came over the loudspeaker.
Now, I have to confess something that I am not particularly proud of: My first instinct was to worry about the impact Michael’s choice would have on my class. For a first-year teacher, classroom order is valuable currency. I feared that other students, seeing Michael sitting during the Pledge, would fail to understand his reasons for doing so and would instead see an opportunity to, like Michael, opt out of classroom rules. Indeed, religious dissenters often face this attitude: that things would be easier if they just didn’t rock the boat.
But Michael wasn’t trying to rock the boat. He and his family were simply exercising their right to practice religion free from state interference. As long ago as 1943, in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court made it clear that students cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”
At the time, I didn’t know the Barnette case – I wouldn’t enter law school until years later. But whatever my worries about how Michael’s actions might impact the class, I didn’t have to know the law to realize that forcing a student to violate his religious beliefs in the classroom was wrong. So, despite my fears about how Michael’s decision might impact classroom order, I told him that he was free to sit and thanked him for informing me about his and his family’s choice.
Minutes later, the Pledge came over the loudspeaker. I stood, as did the class – except for Michael, who remained seated. As those of us standing recited the Pledge, students looked quizzically at Michael. I braced myself for an expected torrent of “How come Michael doesn’t have to stand?” and “That’s not fair!”
But when the Pledge ended, the students instead started asking questions – first, to Michael, about his decision to sit, his faith and why he couldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. And then they started asking me questions too: about the Pledge, why we do it, and what it means. After talking for 20 or 30 minutes, all of us – my students, Michael and I – had a greater understanding of what the Pledge was, why we said it and what it meant to each of us.
Dissent, in the form of religious difference or non-religion, can be scary. It can feel uncomfortable or disorderly. But that day in a class of fourth-graders, I saw how creating space for those with non-majoritarian beliefs doesn’t just protect those believers (or non-believers). It also presents us all with an opportunity to reflect on and gain a greater understanding of our own views and traditions. In other words, the rights of dissenters protect all of us. And I’m proud to work at Americans United, where through our Know Your Rights campaign and other vehicles, we protect those rights every day.
Alex Bodaken is the Steven Gey constitutional litigation fellow at Americans United.