Texas student who protested his oath of allegiance gets $90,000 settlement

In Texas, State Law requires students to pledge daily allegiance to the flags of the United States and the Lone Star State. As a high ...


In Texas, State Law requires students to pledge daily allegiance to the flags of the United States and the Lone Star State. As a high school student in Spring, Texas, Mari Oliver sat in silence during this daily recitation.

In September 2017, two months into Ms. Oliver’s senior year at Klein Oak High School, sociology teacher Benjie Arnold played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and asked the class to write about the feelings the song evoked in them. . He then asked the students, including Ms Oliver, to transcribe the words of the oath of allegiance, according to a federal lawsuit she filed that year against him, three other teachers, a school administrator, and the school district, alleging that she was harassed because she chose not to recite the pledge.

That September day, she didn’t write a word. Instead, she drew a curvy line.

Four years later, lawyers for Ms Oliver, now 21 and a long-time graduate of Klein Oak High School, announced an agreement on Tuesday with Mr. Arnold reached earlier this month under which Ms. Oliver will receive $90,000 paid by the Texas Association of School Boards.

“Non-religious students are often bullied or harassed for expressing their deeply held beliefs,” said Nick Fish, president of the civil rights organization American Atheists, which prosecuted Ms Oliver’s case, in a statement. “No one should have to endure the years of harassment, disrespect and intimidation that our client faced. The fact that this happened in a public school and in the hands of staff who should be better informed is particularly appalling.

Ms Oliver objected to the pledge because she did not believe the United States guarantees “freedom and justice for all”, especially for people of color, the statement said. She also disagreed with the words “under God”. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that students have a First Amendment right not to salute the flag or pledge allegiance.

Theresa Gage-Dieringer, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Boards, which provides liability coverage for the Klein Independent School District, said that “after discussion with the attorney and Mr. Arnold, it was decided that, in the interest of limiting the pursuit of costly litigation, a settlement agreement should be reached.

Mr. Arnold has not admitted any wrongdoing, according to Geoffrey T. Blackwell, counsel at American Atheists.

Mr. Arnold taught at Klein Oak for more than five decades and is currently still employed at the school, said Justin Elbert, spokesman for the Klein Independent School District. Mr. Arnold and his lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

After the engagement, Mr. Arnold told the class that students who did not complete it would receive a zero mark, then said that the people who sat during the engagement were comparable to “Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia, and those who condone paedophilia,” according to the lawsuit.

In an unsuccessful attempt to shield him from trial, Mr Arnold argued the pledge had a ‘legitimate educational purpose’ and was not intended to instill patriotism, according to court documents. He also said he did not harass Ms Oliver or treat her differently from her peers because of her refusal.

At the time of settlement, Mr. Arnold was the only remaining defendant. Two years earlier, a federal judge dismissed Ms. Oliver’s claims against other school staff and the school district.

From 2014, as a freshman in high school, there were myriad consequences for Ms. Oliver’s withdrawal from engagement. The teachers singled her out on the pledge, sent her to the principal’s office, berated her after class and confiscated her phone, the lawsuit alleges. Although Ms Oliver and her mother expressed their concerns to school officials, the backlash from teachers continued and intensified, they said.

Mr Blackwell said Ms Oliver’s experience “was by no means unique”.

“Students across the country face similar incidents of discrimination every day,” he said, adding that the organization survey of 34,000 non-religious Americans found that more than a third of 18- to 25-year-olds said they had experienced discrimination in education because of their non-religious beliefs.

Despite the 1943 Supreme Court ruling protecting the right not to recite the pledge or salute the flag, debate and litigation over this right has persisted.

Three years ago, a sixth-grade student from Lakeland, Florida, who had refused to recite the pledge was arrested after an argument with a substitute teacher over his protest. The 11-year-old boy told the teacher he thought the pledge represented racism. In 2017, India Landry, then a 17-year-old high school student in Texas, was expelled after fulfilling the recognizance.

In a statement sent by Mr Blackwell, Ms Oliver said she hoped her case would ‘inspire others to stand up for their rights, especially black people’, but was ‘saddened that black people in America still have to fight for equality and equity.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Texas student who protested his oath of allegiance gets $90,000 settlement
Texas student who protested his oath of allegiance gets $90,000 settlement
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