Reading Time: 6 minutes

American Atheists has won a significant legal settlement on behalf of a teenager who said she was perpetually harassed by one of her Texas high school teachers for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

As a result of the litigation, the Texas Association of School Boards, which AA describes as a “risk pool funded by Texas school districts,” will have to pay $90,000 to end the case before it ever goes to trial, a decision that suggests they knew how this would play out and wanted to avoid a future, further catastrophe.

The background of the Texas Pledge case

In 2017, when then original lawsuit was filed, then-17-year-old Mari Leigh Oliver was a student at Klein Oak High School in Texas. She didn’t want to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance for personal reasons. Specifically, she doesn’t believe our nation is truly one with “liberty and justice for all” and she didn’t want to pretend like it was. Her teachers and principals, completely ignoring the law that allows students to sit out while the Pledge is recited, constantly punished her for her decision. In some cases, when another student bullied her, they did nothing serious to put a stop to it.

The allegations in the lawsuit were jaw-dropping.

As a freshman, Oliver was written up (a form of punishment) by her World Geography teacher for remaining seated during the Pledge. When she told the principal what happened, the principal defended the teacher by saying he was allowed to write her up “because of his military service,” as if that excused his violation of her civil rights. That teacher was never disciplined. In fact, on another occasion, he temporarily took away Oliver’s phone because of her “lack of respect” for the Pledge. (The lawsuit also noted that he read Bible passages to the students on multiple occasions.)

The following year, in journalism class, Oliver’s teacher repeatedly told her to stand for the Pledge when she chose not to. That teacher even reported Oliver to her guidance counselor… who also told her to stand. Neither of those adults was ever disciplined for “singling [Oliver] out in class for peacefully and non-disruptively engaging in free speech.” It was just a brigade of people who should’ve known better punishing a student who knew better.

When Oliver was a junior, her protest resulted in a classmate standing up and calling her a “bitch.” That same student later posted pictures on Snapchat, including one with the caption, “Like if you don’t respect [our] country then get the fuck out of it[.]” Despite a forced apology in front of the principal, that same student later told another classmate (within earshot of Oliver), “There’s the bitch that sits for the Pledge.”

It didn’t get any better later that school year when Oliver was placed in the same sociology class as the bully. Trying to prevent another conflict, the principal removed Oliver from the class… essentially, punishing her for what the bully was doing.

That led Oliver’s mother LaShan Arceneaux to withdraw her from Klein Oak for a few months and pursue homeschooling instead, despite expenses eventually totaling more than $10,000.

Things didn’t improve during her senior year. Oliver came back to Klein Oak and was back in that sociology teacher’s classroom. The bully (presumably passing the class the year before) wasn’t there, but the teacher, Benjie Arnold, decided to step into that same role.

According to the lawsuit, Arnold told students “that sitting for the Pledge was a privilege, not a right, and that people who sit for the Pledge are unappreciative and disrespectful, stating that all they do is take from society.” He also, on another occasion, “compared people who refuse to say the Pledge to Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.” He told students to transcribe the words of the Pledge as an assignment and gave Oliver a failing grade when she refused to play along. (More on that in a moment.)

At one point, Arnold played Christian music in the classroom and “stared at Oliver continuously as the song played.”

And then there’s the kicker: Oliver secretly recorded one of his batshit crazy rants one day, and this is what Arnold was caught telling his students:

Your assignment yesterday was to write the Pledge. If you have a math class and that teacher gives you 10 problems to do, and you say you don’t wanna do ‘em, tell me what your grade is[.] It’s a zero. And you have the option to do that, but what you’ve done is leave me no option but to give you a zero. And you can have all the beliefs, and resentment, and animosity that you want. But I made it clear yesterday: Writing it is not something you pledge.

But again, but I know the sticker’s gone—I used to have it, and it said “America, love it, or leave it.” And if you can tell me two countries you’d rather go to[,] I will pay your way there if they’re communist or socialist. Most of Europe is socialist and it’s crumbling. Or it’s communism. But if you ever come back you have to pay me twice what it cost me to send you there. You know there’s a lot of things I complain about. So when it comes time in November I go vote, or I protest in writing, in legal. Those are the ways we do it in America.

Where a country will crumble is when people coming into a country do not assimilate to that country. That doesn’t mean you forget Day of the Dead, and whatever cultures[,] you maintain your language. That doesn’t mean that. But you’re not gonna drive on the left side of the road, and you’re not gonna impose Sharia law. Because it’s not. [T]his. [C]ountry. But what is happening, and I can say it a lot more than you because I’ve lived longer. It’s almost as America’s assimilating to THOSE countries.

The guy was auditioning for a commentator role on FOX News by practicing in front of his sociology students.

The Pledge lawsuit called out years of inaction and bullying

That’s when Oliver and her mother filed their lawsuit with the help of American Atheists. Over the course of the next few years, many of the claims against most of the defendants were dismissed, but the one against the sociology teacher, Benjie Arnold, remained.

The question that remained standing involved whether Arnold could be sued for damages or whether qualified immunity shielded him from those potential consequences. Was the constitutional right he violated so clearly established that he could be held financially liable for his actions?

Arnold’s defense was that he was immune. He said that, under Texas law, Oliver was required to say the Pledge (barring a written exemption from her mother, which is in dispute) and that forcing students to write the Pledge on paper was a general assignment and not a form of retaliation. In other words, he didn’t violate her constitutional rights, much less do so in such an egregious way so as to put himself at risk.

Last June, the (traditionally conservative) Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case could indeed move forward — dismissing Arnold’s attempt to have the whole thing tossed out. American Atheists hailed the step forward, with the student’s lawyer saying “Mr. Arnold should have been teaching students about American freedom, not American intolerance.”

That ruling also made news for another reason. It was a 2-1 decision by the Fifth Circuit and the lone dissenter was Kyle Duncan, a judge nominated by Donald Trump, who was widely seen as one of his more insane right-wing selections (which is saying something). Duncan had previously made headlines for opposing same-sex marriage and purposely misgendering a trans person in his courtroom.

Duncan’s dissent in this case read more like a conservative diatribe, referencing Dr. Seuss being “controversial,” acting like we live in a society where racism isn’t pervasive, and citing the work of anti-“Critical Race Theory” activist Christopher Rufo.

The Texas Pledge settlement prevents a future trial

With the case heading for trial, it’s no surprise the Texas school district was worried. If the facts alleged in the lawsuit were accurate—and there’s no reason to think otherwise—they clearly had no defense. Arnold’s actions were unconstitutional and obviously retaliatory. What possible argument could they have made to pretend otherwise that would’ve been convincing to a judge? All Arnold had to do was… nothing. Instead, he took his wrath out on one of his students because she didn’t want to participate in a Christian classroom ritual.

Today, American Atheists announced that the trial would not go on as planned… because Arnold’s legal team settled the case before it got to that stage. The end result is that his side will have to pay out a huge chunk of cash in order to avoid a more serious penalty down the line.

The defendant, the student’s 12th grade sociology teacher, agreed to settle the case. As a result of that agreement, the Texas Association of School Boards, a risk pool funded by Texas school districts, has paid $90,000 to resolve the case before trial.

“Nonreligious students often face bullying or harassment for expressing their deeply held convictions,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “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. After nearly five years of litigation, the defendant finally made the only smart decision and agreed to settle this case.

Again, it’s no wonder this is the path Texas schools are taking. The teachers and administrators were indoctrinating students in ways that are far more damning than all the shit they accuse liberals of doing, but when a student finally called them out on it, they caved because even they realized they couldn’t defend their actions.

To paraphrase what American Atheists said, this school should’ve been teaching students about the Constitution. Instead, the adults showed them how to violate it.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.