Overview:

A Houston area teacher said he would fail students who refused to stand for the pledge. This resulted in a lawsuit and a $90,000 settlement.

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Although our public institutions are supposed to promote free speech and the separation between church and state, there is increasing pressure from religious groups to bring God back into the classroom. When such groups, or even sympathetic teachers or administrators get their way, secular students can face punishments that adversely affect their education. That’s exactly what happened at Klein Oak High School, just outside of Houston.

A teacher took offense to a student’s refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The student objected to reciting the pledge over its use of the words “under God.” As a result of her refusal, the student was bullied by her sociology teacher, Benjie Arnold, for multiple years.

The lawsuit also alleges that Arnold compared students who wouldn’t stand for the pledge to “Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.”

After the bullying over the pledge, the student sued. According to American Atheists, the organization that represented the student during the lawsuit, Arnold claimed that he would fail students who refused to stand for the pledge and compared students who wouldn’t stand for the pledge to “Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.”

Arnold eventually agreed to a settlement, set at $90,000, which will be paid out by the Texas Association of School Boards. 

“Nonreligious students often face bullying or harassment for expressing their deeply-held convictions,” said Nick Fish, the 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.”

In addition to the words “under God” in the pledge, the student objected to the perceived injustices inherent in the US political system. She made note of her “belief that the United States does not adequately guarantee ‘liberty and justice for all,’ especially for people of color” in a statement released through American Atheists

The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that students could not be forced to stand for or to recite the pledge, yet students continue to have to fight for this well-established right. The American public often takes freedom of speech and separation of church and state as a given. But as the spread of anti-critical race theory laws and the growth of political Christian groups indicates, these rights are under pressure. That is why it is so important to shine a light on stories like the one at Klein Oak High School. These are not isolated incidents. They are a part of a broader narrative around church-state separation, Christian nationalism, and pluralist democracy. Church state separation is under threat in schools, and this is just another indication that public officials need to do more to protect students.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.