FFRF wins one in Utah for freedom

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has notched a victory in Utah for the freedom of conscience.

FFRF was contacted by a concerned parent regarding a serious constitutional violation occurring in the state's Canyons School District. On the first day of school, Maureen Howe, a math teacher at Hillcrest High School in Midvale, Utah, singled out and rebuked a student for choosing to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. The complainant reported that when her child didn't stand for the pledge, Howe approached the child and told her she needed to be respectful and stand.

Howe's action was a violation of the Constitution, FFRF informed the Canyons School District.

"The Supreme Court ruled over 70 years ago that compelling a student to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance infringed upon a student's First Amendment rights," FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Canyons School District Superintendent James Briscoe

The 1943 W. Va. State Board of Education v. Barnette ruling assured students that their beliefs would be protected. The court stated:

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

FFRF added, "Multiple courts have reiterated that students have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance and that any punishment administered in reaction to a student exercising that right violates the Constitution."

That's why students may not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience, FFRF contended.

The school district has found FFRF's rationale so persuasive that it has made its own parallel case for the freedom to dissent in its response.

"Teachers need to teach students to show respect for any student who chooses not to participate by modeling that respect themselves," states the district's general counsel, Daniel Harper, in his reply

The letter acknowledges that Utah state statutes and state board of education regulations forbid compelling a student to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance.

"Ms. Howe has indicated that she will no longer require students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in the future," the letter says. "Principal Leavitt has sent out an email to all of the teachers at Hillcrest High School reviewing Utah law regarding the Pledge of Allegiance."

FFRF is delighted at finding such a receptive ear.

"We're glad when school officials pledge allegiance to our First Amendment," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Teachers should be made aware that they can't coerce students on matters of conscience."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members across the country, including in Utah. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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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