Watchdog Group Protests Harassment of Wisconsin 13-Year-Old at School

Religious Pledge of Allegiance Creates Discord

A 13-year-old 'A' student new to West Bend's Silverbrook Middle School (Wis.) has been deprived of her constitutional rights by her principal and singled out for harassment, charges the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.,-based national state/church watchdog group.

When the 8th grader did not stand for the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance on her first day of school last week, her homeroom teacher singled her out, told her to stand, and when she did not, demanded to know the reason. She explained to him she did not need a reason.

When she did not stand on the second day of class, according to Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Foundation, she was pulled out of her second-period class, after being summoned publicly over the intercom. She was lectured to the point of near-tears by Principal Cindy Guell, who interrogated her and demanded to know why she did not want to say the pledge. The student told her, "It's against my religion." The principal asked outright what her religion was, and she responded, "I don't have one," explaining she did not want to have to repeat the words "under God." The principal told her she had to stand for the pledge in the future.

"The teacher and principal have shown colossal insensitivity and ignorance about the law," said Gaylor. A 2001 Wisconsin law mandating that the Pledge of Allegiance be scheduled daily in public schools specifically exempts students from being compelled to participate in the pledge, as does the landmark 1943 Supreme Court decision, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

"We faxed a detailed letter on the law both to West Bend's Superintendent and the principal on Sept. 6. Instead of complying with the law, the principal upped the pressure early this week, announcing over the intercom before the pledge was broadcast that all students must stand to 'at least show respect for their country,' " noted Gaylor.

The student was in tears when picked up from school by her mother.

The student's treatment by school authorities has been "shocking and serious," Gaylor said. In asking Supt. Randal Eckhart of the West Bend school district to intercede immediately to protect the student's constitutional rights, Gaylor had noted: "She deserves an apology, and her fellow students should know she did nothing wrong, was well within her rights and that, if they want to follow her example, they would be well within their rights."

The Foundation received a letter this morning from the Superintendent dated Sept. 8, saying: "I have spoken to the principal in question and announcements will be made informing all students of their right to remain seated and to participate, or not participate, in the Pledge of Allegiance if they wish."

"We are pleased with the Superintendent's assurance, but wish his intervention could have been immediate, to spare this student the unnecessary additional trauma this week. We are awaiting word on what happens today at her school," Gaylor said.

"This 'A' student, new to the 8th grade class, her school and community, should never have been embarrassed or denied her freedom of conscience in this manner. Clearly, public educators still need to be educated about the law, and this conflict shows the continuing harm of having 'under God' in our Pledge of Allegiance."

The Foundation suggests the West Bend district (and all public schools) follow the example of the Madison Metropolitan School District (Wis.), which precedes the daily broadcast of the pledge with a disclaimer pointing out America is a free country, and students have a choice whether to stand or participate.

The Foundation will be naming the 13-year-old its 2004 "Student Activist of the Year," involving a $1,000 cash scholarship, awarded at its annual convention at the Concourse Hotel being held in Madison, Wis. on Oct. 29-30. Pledge opponent Michael Newdow fittingly will also be on hand, where he will be named a "Freethought Hero."

"This student knew her rights, and demonstrated great integrity in sitting down for them!" said Gaylor.

For details about the national convention, go here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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