Schools and Learning

A S.C. Student Was Punished For Refusing To Take Part In The Pledge Of Allegiance. This Needs To Stop.

  Rob Boston

A ninth-grade student in Lexington, S.C., says she was confronted by a teacher and pushed against a wall after she declined to recognize recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Marissa Barnwell, 15, said she was walking to class at River Bluff High School when the Pledge came over the public-address system. She continued quietly through the hallway on her way to her classroom when a teacher yelled at her, grabbed her and sent her to the principal’s office.

The principal sent her to class, but Barnwell worried that she was in trouble.

“I was completely and utterly disrespected,” Barnwell said during a news conference last week announcing litigation over the matter. “No one has apologized, no one has acknowledged my hurt. … The fact that the school is defending that kind of behavior is unimaginable.”

More Than An Apology

If Barnwell’s account is accurate – and there is video of the incident that appears her back up her claims – then the school needs to do more than apologize; it needs to train its employees in the law in this area. (And perhaps fire the teacher who grabbed and pushed her – that’s battery.)

South Carolina law requires public schools to sponsor recitation of the Pledge each day, but it also states that no one can be forced to take part. More to the point, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on this issue in 1943. In a landmark case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the high court ruled that students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be punished for refusing to take part in the Pledge ritual.

It’s worth noting that the Pledge didn’t contain the words “under God” back then – those were not added until 1954. Witnesses objected to the Pledge because they believe their only allegiance is to God. Today, some students object to the Pledge because of its religious content, while others don’t take part for other reasons.

The Law Is Clear

It doesn’t matter what a student’s objection is, the law is clear: They can’t be forced to take part or punished for declining to participate.

That has been the law for 80 years – yet some students are still being punished. (Americans United occasionally receives complaints about this – you can report these and other religious freedom violations to us here.)

It is way past time for this to stop happening.


Americans United & the National Women’s Law Center file suit to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans.

Abortion bans violate the separation of church and state. Americans United and the National Women’s Law Center—the leading experts in religious freedom and gender justice—have joined forces with thirteen clergy from six faith traditions to challenge Missouri’s abortion bans as unconstitutionally imposing one narrow religious doctrine on everyone.

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