A Texas public school teacher who is accused of harassing a student who declined to stand for recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance can be sued, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Mari Leigh Oliver, a former student at Klein Oak High School, sued the teacher, Benjie Arnold, for violating her First Amendment rights. Oliver, who does not recite the Pledge or stand for it due in part to its religious content, said Arnold retaliated against her over the matter.

In one instance, Arnold, a sociology teacher, gave all his students an assignment to transcribe the words of the Pledge. Oliver refused and received a zero for the assignment. Oliver said Arnold then attacked students who don’t recite the Pledge, accusing them of lacking patriotism.

Texas law mandates that public schools hold recitation of the Pledge every school day. However, students can be excused if their parents/ ­guardians make a written request, which Oliver’s mother did.

Arnold maintained that he never singled Oliver out for poor treatment, and asserted that he was immune from being sued. A federal court ruled against him, and an appeals court later upheld that ruling. At this point, Arnold’s attorneys requested that the entire 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hear his case. But this court also ruled against him in a 10-7 decision.

American Atheists, which represented Oliver in court, hailed the ruling.

“This is an important victory for nonreligous Americans – and all Americans’ freedom of speech,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, litigation counsel for the group. “The classroom is not a pulpit. It is a place of education, not indoctrination. No student should be punished for exercising her First Amendment rights.”

Blackwell added, “This decision by the 5th Circuit affirms what we’ve said all along: Teachers who trample the constitutional rights of their students will be held accountable.” (Oliver v. Arnold)

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