FFRF Halts School Harassment of Non-pledger

A 13-year-old ‘A’ student new to West Bend’s Silverbrook Middle School (Wis.) was deprived of her constitutional rights by her public school and singled out for harassment by authorities for not standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in early September.

When the 8th-grader did not rise for the daily recitation of the pledge on her first day of school, her homeroom teacher singled her out. After class he demanded to know why she did not stand. The student correctly explained she did not need a reason.

When she did not stand on the second day of class, she was publicly pulled out of the end of her second-period class, missing her math assignment. 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.

When the student told her, It’s against my religion,” the principal asked outright what her religion is.

The 8th-grader responded, “I don’t have one.” She told the principal 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. During the long session, the principal demanded to know why the student seemed upset. She returned to her third-hour class with only eight minutes of class left.

When the student’s mother learned about this episode after her daughter came home from school, she immediately phoned the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The principal had gone home by the time the Foundation phoned at 4 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2 (the start of Labor Day weekend).

“We faxed and mailed a detailed letter on the law both to West Bend’s superintendent and the principal on Sept. 6 (Labor Day),” noted Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Foundation.

A 2001 Wisconsin law mandating that the Pledge of Allegiance (or playing of the national anthem) 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.

In asking Supt. Randal Eckhart of the West Bend school district to intercede immediately to protect the student’s constitutional rights, Gaylor 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.”

Instead of complying with the law after receiving the Foundation’s letter, the principal upped the pressure. The pledge, which is broadcast over the intercom, was preceded by an announcement on Sept. 8 saying the reason students stand is to “show honor for their country.”

The 8th-grader told Freethought Today that “all the kids turned and stared at me” when this coercive message was broadcast. She was in tears by the time her mother picked her up from school that day.

The Foundation received a letter in the mail on Sept. 9 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.”

Nevertheless, on Sept. 9, the recitation of the pledge at the middle school was again prefaced by the statement compounding the coercion by impugning the student’s patriotism as a non-pledger. The Foundation went public with its complaint that day, with reporters from several newspapers and a wire service contacting the school and publishing stories the following day.

The student happily reported that a school counselor came into the class on Sept. 10, to inform the students in her class that students were free to stay seated and not recite the pledge, if they wished. The announcement apparently was not made school-wide or district-wide, as the Foundation had requested.

“We are pleased with the superintendent’s assurance, but wish his intervention could have been immediate, to spare this student the unnecessary additional trauma,” Gaylor said. “It’s particularly dishonest that this bullying principal would tell media that the student ‘misinterpreted concern for her well-being.’

“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. 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 lead 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 do not have 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 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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation