Schools and Learning

A Texas High School Has Just Learned It’s Not Wise To Ignore Students’ Rights

  Rob Boston

A former Texas high school student has been awarded $90,000 in a church-state lawsuit she never should have had to file.

In 2014, when Mari Oliver was a freshman at Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas, she decided she would not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Oliver disagreed with the religious content of the Pledge and also argued that the United States has failed to live up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all” – especially for people of color.

A Texas law requires public schools to sponsor recitation of the Pledge every day, but schools can’t compel students to take part if they object. This was made clear by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1943 case called West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

Oliver was acting well within her rights, but her decision to opt out didn’t sit well with some teachers and staff, especially Benjie Arnold, a sociology teacher. Oliver’s lawsuit asserted that Arnold embarked on what can only be described as a campaign of harassment against her.

Things came to a head in 2017 during Oliver’s senior year. As The New York Times reported, Arnold played Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” in class and instructed students to write about the song made them feel. He then instructed them to transcribe the words of the Pledge.

Really? What do pathetic assignments like this have to do with sociology?

School officials were no help. As The Times reported, “Teachers singled her out during the pledge, sent her to the principal’s office, admonished her after class, and confiscated her phone, according to the lawsuit. Despite Ms. Oliver and her mother voicing concerns to school officials, the pushback from teachers continued and intensified, they said.”

Weary of the harassment, Oliver sued. In court, she was represented by our allies at American Atheists. Last week, the group announced the settlement. Oliver, now 21, will receive $90,000.

“Nonreligious students often face bullying or harassment for expressing their deeply held convictions,” Nick Fish, president of American Atheists said in a statement. “No one should have to endure the years of harassment, disrespect, and bullying our client faced. The fact that this happened in a public school and at the hands of staff who should know better is particularly appalling.” (Under the terms of the settlement, Arnold, who remains employed by the district, has admitted to no wrongdoing.)

No one wants to see public schools lose money, but what happened to Oliver is simply inexcusable. The Supreme Court settled this matter 78 years ago, and it’s not as if the Barnette ruling is obscure; in fact, it’s one of the high court’s most famous civil liberties decisions.

Officials at Klein Oak High School have learned a costly lesson about the dangers of ignoring students’ rights. Let’s hope other public schools in Texas and elsewhere are paying attention.

P.S. Americans United’s “Know Your Rights” guides are designed to avoid problems like this by helping students, parents, staff and others understand their rights and responsibilities concerning religious freedom in public schools. Check them out!

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