FFRF stands up for students’ right to omit “under God” from pledge

The Freedom From Religion Foundation yesterday sent a strong letter to the Tracy Unified School District (Calif.) censuring the punishment of two West High School students who omitted the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Students in Shauna Baker’s speech and debate class are charged with the responsibility of reading the daily announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance over the loudspeaker to everyone in the school as part of a graded assignment. Juniors Adrianna Teboe and Derek Giardina recently left out the words “under God” when it was their turn to recite the pledge.

Both students were marked down a grade for the omission, according to news reports. Giardina was reportedly given detention when he failed to include the phrase a second time, and Baker told him if he did not say the pledge properly, he would be suspended and kicked out of class.

“Students should not be singled out for exercising a conscientious objection to the words ‘under God,’ ” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Katherine Paige, pointing out that the phrase was only belatedly added to the previously secular pledge in the 1950s.

“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,” added Paige.

In its seminal 1943 decision holding that compelling a student to participate in the pledge infringed upon the student’s free speech, the Supreme Court memorably wrote, “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.” The decision was issued even before “under God” was added to the pledge.

FFRF asked the district to educate Baker and other teachers about the law and instruct them not to single out or penalize students for exercising their right not to participate.

“The school district should apologize to these students for violating their civil rights, and for subjecting them to embarrassment and reprisal for standing up for their rights,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President.

FFRF, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., has over 21,500 members nationwide, including over 3,300 in California.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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