A former Texas high school student has been awarded $90,000 in a church-state lawsuit she filed after she was allegedly harassed by school officials for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Mari Oliver was a freshman at Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas, in 2014 when she decided she would not recite the Pledge. 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.
Although Oliver was acting well within her rights, 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 how the song made them feel. He then instructed them to transcribe the words of the Pledge.
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 American Atheists. Last month, 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.)