Student Activist Award: Catherine Goodsett-Wein

This acceptance speech was delivered by Catherine Goodsett-Wein on behalf of her daughter, 13, on Oct. 30, 2004, at the national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis. The annual memorial award for student activism is underwritten by Foundation Board member Richard Mole, La.

By Catherine Goodsett-Wein

I wish my daughter was here today more than anything, because she’s just such a great person. I know you would all be really charmed by her presence. But unfortunately she can’t be here, and I’ll explain later why she’s not here.

I’d also like to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its members. My dad has always told me that a contract is no better than the paper it’s written on, just as a law is no better than the paper that it’s written on. It takes people like those in the Freedom From Religion Foundation to take those laws and breathe life into them so that they protect the rights of people like myself, who normally would be powerless against huge governmental systems like a public school system when someone in there is abusing their power.

It all started the first day of school. My daughter was very nervous to attend a new school and be a new student. In the past, she’s never stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, ever since she was in kindergarten. It never was a big issue until she met the principal at the Silver Brook School, which she attends in West Bend. So it was shocking when she came home and told me that she was being pretty much forced to stand and recite the pledge at school.

On her first day of school, she did what she normally did. When it was announced that it was going to be recited over the intercom system, she just sat quietly and peacefully, dissenting like she always had. The teacher made motions to her to stand and participate, and she just shook her head no and remained seated. While she was trying to leave the classroom that day, the teacher took her aside and wanted to know why she would not stand for the pledge. He wanted a reason why. And she said to him, I don’t have to give you a reason why.”

I was pretty upset, so I wrote a letter to the principal of the school that day. On the second day, again she was told over the intercom system to stand for the pledge. She refused to stand. Then at the end of her third hour that day, the principal’s voice came over the intercom system in the school, asking to see my daughter in her office after class.

So my daughter went to her office, and sat and waited quietly while the principal finished up a phone call. She called my daughter into her office and proceeded to interrogate her about not standing for the pledge, and she told her that she could just stand and say everything in the pledge but the “under God” part. My daughter said that she didn’t want to do this. Basically what she ended up saying was that she didn’t have any religion, and that’s why she didn’t want to say the “under God” part. This went on almost the whole third-hour period. She was in this principal’s office, being interrogated and bullied into conforming to the pledge that she didn’t want to say.

Then I called the Freedom From Religion Foundation and I spoke with Annie Laurie Gaylor on the phone and told her what had happened. I was pretty upset that day because my daughter came home in tears. It was very humiliating for her, first of all, to be pulled out of class, to be treated that way. You know, anybody who gets pulled out of class, it’s like, “Whoa, what did you do wrong?” She’s the new student there, so nobody really knew her. So you kinda wonder what they were thinking.

I called and told the Foundation what had happened, and they were really quick to respond, writing a letter to the superintendent of the school system there as well as a letter to the principal, requesting that they honor the Wisconsin state statute that went into effect in 2001. It does state that a student can’t be compelled against her will to stand and do the pledge.

My daughter went to school the next day, and I waited anxiously for her to come home, because I was intrigued to find out what happened. That next day, the principal herself got on the intercom, and announced that “we rise for the pledge to show respect for our country.” My daughter said that made her feel really bad because she knew that that was directed toward her.

The superintendent had written the Freedom From Religion Foundation that he would have the principal make an announcement that students have an option whether or not they want to participate in the pledge. (The superintendent’s reply was received in a letter five days after the initial complaint.) Obviously, the principal hadn’t heard from the superintendent yet, or she was just very evidently ignoring what he had told her to do.

The next day, the principal had a student make that same announcement. She herself didn’t make it, but she had a student get over the PA and ask everyone to stand for the pledge to show respect for their country. It took a couple more days and then finally a guidance counselor showed up in my daughter’s classroom before the pledge and told just her class alone that they had the option to either participate or not participate in the pledge.

So I guess that was the end of it, and that was the closest we got to a compromise with that issue with the principal at that school.

I’m just really proud of my daughter, because she showed a lot of class and just quietly stood up for her rights without being disrespectful. She is a 4.1 grade point average student. She’s a great student, so this scholarship money is going to be put to good use. Maybe she’ll even go to school here in Madison someday. That’s her story.

Oh, and why she’s not here. I was so excited for her that she was going to be honored for this and get some recognition, some support for what she had done. Then I received notice from the court system in my county, which is very ultra-conservative, that now I’m being pulled into mediation with my ex-husband, and the reason he’s doing this is that he’s claiming his parental rights are being violated. He believes it’s immoral for her not to pledge to the flag, and to be part of any atheist organization, and so I fear that if I do end up back in court with him, as a result of this, that I could be at a disadvantage. To play it safe I just kept her home, with her dad.

Did she have any support from any of her peers?

Yes, as a matter of fact she did. She was on the track team, and she said one student on the track team and her mother came up, approached her at a track meet and said, “Good going, you did the right thing.” They told her it was a big honor, and it was great what she had done.

Did she have any retribution from the other classmates?

She said a lot of people were more curious than anything else, asking her questions. I think a lot of kids just don’t understand what the law is out there, that they have that right to not participate in the pledge.

Do you know if after the announcement was made for the pledge to be optional, if other students also chose not to participate?

I don’t think so. But I know that at the school that she went to previously, where most kids knew her for years, there were three or four other students who were sitting down the same way that she was.

You said she started sitting down when she was five years old. How did that happen?

I was educating her that you have a choice, it’s not mandatory, that you can do what you want. I told her that nobody can force you, it’s against the law to force you to do it. I also told her that if you want to do it, then do it, but if you don’t want to do it, don’t. That it was her choice.

Thank you very much.

Freedom From Religion Foundation