A former Texas high school student who alleged that she was harassed for not participating in the Pledge of Allegiance has received a $90,000 settlement.
Mari Oliver reportedly “objected to the pledge because she did not believe that the United States guarantees ‘liberty and justice for all,’ especially for people of color…[and] also did not agree with the words ‘under God’ ”
Texas state law does require students to recite the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag and the pledge of allegiance to the state flag once during each school day at each school campus. However, students can opt out of standing or reciting the pledge if it contradicts their beliefs per the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette.
“Nonreligious students often face bullying or harassment for expressing their deeply held convictions…No one should have to endure the years of harassment, disrespect and bullying our. client faced,” said Nick Fish, President of civil rights organization, American Atheists.
An attorney with American Atheists filed a lawsuit on behalf of Oliver in 2017. The lawsuit claims that the former student faced many consequences for her decision to opt-out of reciting the pledge as early as 2014, when she was a high school freshman.
“Teachers singled her out during the pledge, sent her to the principal’s office, admonished her after class, and confiscated her phone. Despite Ms. Oliver and her mother voicing concerns to school officials, the pushback from teachers continued and intensified,” the New York Times reports.
During Oliver’s senior year at Klein Oak High School in 2017, tensions escalated when sociology teacher Benjie Arnold “played Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ and asked the class to write about the feelings the song summoned up in them” and instructed them to transcribe the pledge on paper.
Instead of writing down the words, Oliver drew a “squiggly line,” and Arnold allegedly spoke out, “What you’ve done is leave me no option but to give you a zero, and you can have all the beliefs and resentment and animosity that you want.”
In an audio recording obtained by American Atheists, Arnold then “went on an extended tirade, offering to pay for students to move to Europe if they didn’t like living in America—but they would have to pay him back double if they ever returned to the U.S.”
He added, “You know, there’s a lot of things I complain about, so when it comes time in November, I go vote, or I protest in writing and legal [sic]. Those are the ways we do it in America.”
According to the lawsuit, the discrimination and harassment Oliver faced contributed to her mother’s decision to withdraw her from school and homeschool her.Litigation Counsel Geoffrey T. Blackwell said, “The classroom is not a pulpit. It is a place of education, not indoctrination…This settlement serves as a reminder that students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the classroom.”
In terms of Oliver’s legacy, she hopes that she “inspire[d] others to stand up for their rights, especially Black people’…but that she was ‘saddened that Black people in America still have to fight for equality and equity.”
As of last week, Oliver’s former teacher, Arnold was still employed by Klein Oak High School.