American flag hanging above chalk board in classroom
Should students be free to avoid the Pledge of Allegiance?

A Texas woman who was bullied by teachers and students alike for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance has won a $90,000 settlement from the Texas Association of School Boards.

It all started back in 2017, when then-17-year-old Mari Oliver filed a lawsuit against the Klein School District in Klein, Texas, alleging that she’d been harassed for years for her refusal to stand for the Pledge.

“The Pledge of Allegiance is something we say every day at school, and it’s essentially us pledging allegiance to the United States,” she explained at the time. “I sit because I don’t believe that we live in a country where there is justice and freedom for all.”

She also objected to being forced to say the phrase “One nation, under God” every morning.

Oliver’s refusal to participate did not sit well with students and staff at Klein Oak High School, who, according to the lawsuit, bullied her mercilessly for years. In one case, a teacher even assigned writing the Pledge of Allegiance as homework, then failed Oliver when she refused.

Now, five years later, she’s been vindicated by the courts. But how did it ever get that far?

One Nation Under God, Or Else

Oliver’s lawsuit portrays a school district going to increasingly extreme lengths to punish her for refusing to stand for the Pledge. Per the suit, what started as ‘write-ups’ by teachers soon escalated beyond ordinary discipline.

In her freshman year, Oliver remained seated during the Pledge and was written up by her geography teacher – he later took away her phone as punishment, and read Bible passages in class multiple times.

Sophomore year, a journalism teacher told her to stand for the Pledge, and when she refused, referred her to a guidance counselor… who also told her to stand.

Junior year was so bad that Oliver's mother pulled her from school temporarily, as students harassed her and called her crude names for refusing to stand, as teachers stood idly by. Following the harassment, Oliver was ultimately homeschooled by her mother for a portion of the school year.

Things boiled over in her senior year, when sociology teacher Benjie Arnold told her that “sitting for the Pledge was a privilege, not a right, and that people who sit for the Pledge are unappreciative and disrespectful, stating that all they do is take from society.”

One day, Arnold allegedly played ‘Born in the USA’ by Bruce Springsteen – an antiwar tune that many nonetheless interpret as patriotic, Christian music – while staring at Oliver.

He then reportedly instructed students to write down the Pledge of Allegiance. When Oliver once again refused, he issued her a failing grade, then “compared people who refuse to say the Pledge to Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.”

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Oliver and her mother, who enlisted the organization American Atheists to help them sue the school district.

The Pledge of Disobedience?

While most of the claims against the school district were ultimately dismissed, the case against Arnold stuck. After years in court, he opted to settle, paying out $90,000 from a risk pool funded by Texas school districts.

For American Atheists, who represented Oliver along the way, the settlement represented a major win for those who object to the religious implications of the Pledge.

“Nonreligious students often face bullying or harassment for expressing their deeply held convictions,” the group said. “No one should have to endure the years of harassment, disrespect, and bullying our client faced. The fact that this happened in a public school and at the hands of staff who should know better is particularly appalling.”

From a legal standpoint, the question of whether students have to stand for the Pledge was actually decided decades ago. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that forcing students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Interestingly, the phrase "under God" wasn't formally added to the Pledge until 1954, over a decade after the original Supreme Court decision. Clearly, some people disagree with that ruling to this day. 

Mari Oliver is also hardly the first student to publicly clash with their school on the issue. Back in 2014, for example, another Texas student was suspended for refusing to stand for the recitation. In 2016, an Illinois teacher physically pulled a 15-year-old student out of his seat and forced him to stand for the tradition.

What do you think? When it comes to pledging our allegiance – whether to God, or to country – should we have to?

26 comments

  1. Ealdormon Piparskeggr Robinson's Avatar Ealdormon Piparskeggr Robinson

    Only thing I'll offer, wore this country's Uniform to protect the Rights of folks with whom I disagree as vigorously as those with whom I agree. I swore my Oath of Enlistment to the Constitution, not the Flag.

    1. Rev Mark D's Avatar Rev Mark D

      You got it, Padre. Well done.

  1. Alan Meunier's Avatar Alan Meunier

    (SMH- "Texas") Forced patriotism isn't...

  1. Rev Nolan's Avatar Rev Nolan

    Firstly, there’s the First Amendment consideration that I agree totally with in this s case. Secondly, there are indeed controversial phrases in the pledge itself that absolves an individual from saying the pledge at all such as “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” Anyone who believes in the Bible knows that that is the same as idolatry. “Thou shalt not make graven images…” etc. is quite clearly against the Christian and Jewish religions, so why would anyone, especially a Christian, unless by name only, impose what their own religion forbids?

    Next there’s “…one nation…”. People of color have always been treated as second class citizens in America, so we are not one nation but several nations. One nation thinks it’s more superior than their non-white counterparts. That by no means is one nation.

    Next there’s “…under God…”. Under whose god? What if someone is atheist or believes that their God is not the same God as others have? Church and State are separate for a reason, and forcing someone to pledge an idolatrous lie goes against the pledge itself.

    Next there’s “…indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Indivisible means not divided. We know what liberty and justice are. All three of these aspects in the pledge are outright lies. We are a very politically and racially divided nation and people of color don’t have the same liberties as white Americans because they have to always watch their backs from assaults, being pulled over by racially motivated cops, and discrimination in general. I’ve seen how the courts are. I also see the absurd questioning in the Jackson SCOTUS hearings. Unbelievably racially motivated questions by Republican senators have demonstrated their ignorance about their own jobs as Congress members and the role a SCOTUS justice performs.

    All in all, the pledge is a huge lie from beginning to end. It’s also as in-American as it can get. I support prohibiting the mandate of saying The Pledge of Allegiance all together. Oliver deserved far more than just 90k.

    1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

      Utter BS. I am Native American (Cherokee Nation Wolf Clan) And if anyone has a right to complain it us. We have had our lands stolen, we have had whole sections of our people completely wiped out by European and African invaders. We have had over 100 BILLION dollars stolen from us by DC and the courts have said that we cant get it back. This money was suppose to pay us back for past violations of the broken treaties that the US signed with us. And now we have a poor little child who thinks she was so put upon that she needs 90K to sooth her feelings. If she dislikes it here so much she can always move to some other nation, like Canada or Mexico or South America or anywhere else. And no its not a win for anyone As the school boards in Texas can appeal this and she will lose the case

      1940 in the case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis, SCOTUS held that a public school could force students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag and say the Pledge. In Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, the Supreme Court did not end up ruling on the legality of the words “under God” in relation to the First Amendment, but they did rule on the legality of the "under God" on our money and told Newdow to go pound sand. Now if its Ok and constitutional for our money, then what is the major malfunction of this child to at least stand in a classroom? Instead, Justice John Paul Stevens said in the minority opinion that Newdow didn’t have standing to bring suit because he lacked sufficient custody over his daughter. But Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the majority opinion and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas wrote separate concurrences, stating that requiring teachers to lead the Pledge, despite the inclusion of the phrase, “under God,” was constitutional. And this was in 2004. A similar challenge to the Pledge was denied by two federal appeals courts in 2010, which ruled “that the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause because Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism." In 2014, the Massachusetts case Jane Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District involved a group of parents, teachers and the American Humanist Association in an action against a school district. The group claimed the Pledge requirement, including the use of the words “under God,” violated the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution. The state Supreme Court didn’t agree and threw out the case with prejudice meaning it can never be filed again. Also in 2014, a New Jersey family and the American Humanist Association filed a similar lawsuit against the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, seeking to eliminate the use of the words “under God” from Pledges taken at public schools. The school district said that it was just following a New Jersey state law that requires schools to have a daily recitation of the Pledge, and that individual students weren’t forced to take part. In February 2015, a judge ruled in favor of the school district and again threw out the case with prejudice meaning they cant ever file a case like this again. An event in 2019 drew attention to the ability of states to require students at public schools to get parental permission before opting out of the pledge, when a sixth-grade student was arrested in a pledge dispute and it was proved later in the case that the child was arrested for a public disturbance. That case was dropped in March 2019, but the incident harkened back to Frazier v. Winn, a 2008 lower court decision that the U.S. Supreme Court did not take on appeal.

      So its clear that the SCOTUS has left this up to the states to decide. So if the state of Texas said she should at the very least stand (not pledge but at least stand to show a sign of respect) then sorry but she can either stand or go home and be home schooled by her mom. And since she is out of the school already, then the whole case should have been dropped the second she left school at the end of her senior year as it made the whole case moot since she was no longer in school in the first place.

      1. Donald Richard Starns's Avatar Donald Richard Starns

        It bothers me a lot that in the USA, rights are subject to the whims of state government. It would seem that we’re not all equal under the law.

        1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

          Show me where not standing is a right? Oh wait, no federal document nor court has ever made that claim. And each time Mikey Weinstein has tried or threatened to sue, he has lost every time. And one of the main reasons is that he cannot show where the Separation of Church and State he claims is in the Constitution has ever been shown it is in the Constitution. And no, a decision from the SCOTUS CANNOT just put it in the constitution as to change or alter the constitution would require a constitutional amendment. And no at no time in Article 3 (powers of the Judiciary) has it ever nor does it give any judge or Justice or court the right to interpret anything. If that were the case then a newer make up of a Supreme Court can "interpret" something in another way and completely overturn the first decision. That way leads to chaos as no court case would be able to be used as it could be altered or changed on the whim of whatever court decides that its not right.

          Sorry but this is why the Constitution is set up this way and this is why the courts cannot change anything because they feel it different.

        2. Lionheart's Avatar Lionheart

          Correct. Hillary Clinton, Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, the FBI (who mysteriously can’t find the laptop 🙄), and anyone else in high government, plus…those with…….lots of money, like Will Smith, Bill Cosby et al, and even illegal immigrants, are all subject to a different set of rules and laws than us mere groveling citizens. 🤷🏼

          🦁❤️

  1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

    Our country need more people, no women to do what she is doing. It's a disgrace school officials did not protect her from being bullied by other students. I'm so happy our state got rid of the requirement for students to say the pledge of allegiance everyday. It's just a form of brainwashing like religion.

    Remember it was Texas that less than a decade ago tried to pass a law which would have prevented the teaching of "Critical Thinking" skills in grades K-12. We are so lucking that one didn't pass.

  1. Krystina S.'s Avatar Krystina S.

    I do not believe that anyone ought to be compelled to stand for The Pledge of Allegiance or Star Spangled Banner. I believe that prayer ought to be a private decision, not public in any way. Deepest held religious faith and/or patriotism is not best shown by forced (or socially forced) compliance, but in how we treat others. This is a situation where we see the need for protection of the minority viewpoint from bullying by the majority. Separation of religion and government is foundational to our country. Forced "patriotism" is also unconstitutional, and against the ideals for which our country stand. Damn those small-minded, cruel F***ers.

    1. Cyril R. VanKeirsbelk's Avatar Cyril R. VanKeirsbelk

      I this case standing is an expression of respect and therefor falls under the 1st Amendment's freedom of speech. You can't be forced to express things you don't want to. Since sitting quietly is not disrupting the class, the teacher's and other students actions are causing the disruption, the school should not be able to do anything about it.

      You can't force someone to make a pledge if they don't want to, also against the 1st Amendment.

      Ask someone from Europe what they think after watching a class say the pledge... they will call it creepy.

  1. Eric Norrbom's Avatar Eric Norrbom

    There are consequences to taking a public stand on issues not consistent with the views of others. There are consequences to how those who take those views are treated. I trust the payoff was a learning one for all involved.

  1. William Dusenberry's Avatar William Dusenberry

    Rev Nolan;

    Who said “Patriotism is a refuge for scoundrels” — was it (a) disgraced former USA President, Donald Trump, (b) former Zombie-like Vice President Pence, (C) former President Ronald Reagan (d) all of these (e) none of these

  1. Shango MasterExorcist, D.D.'s Avatar Shango MasterExorcist, D.D.

    "Justice and freedom for all" is a wonderful possibility. "One Nation under Gd" is such a lovely idea, especially under everybody's gods. Even if there is no "one nation" or even if there is only one Gd, or even lots of them.

    Nice that some of the students honor these lovely ideas, and very courageous for this student to not participate as there is not yet justice and freedom for most people.

    Good to hear she got a symbolic compensation for the harassment against her.

  1. Rev Mark D's Avatar Rev Mark D

    Good for her, she deserved 10 times what prevailed for. You can love your country without loving goose stepping, racist, paramilitary Nazified domestic terrorists and authoritarian bullies, all of them hate Liberty for anybody but themselves, and whose idea of "liberty" is total slavery for everyone else, especially where (the real) God has left the building ( Texas ).

  1. Amy Minckler's Avatar Amy Minckler

    Maybe if they actually taught kids what and how a pledge works? These kids are really just mimicking. How can a child truly pledge themselves to a country they know nothing about historically or politically? People who have been naturalized know our history better then we do. They are not old enough to understand the responsibility that comes with pledging oneself. Hell there are way too many adults they don't get it. If they don't like her sitting then ask her to step out for the the couple of mins. You do not bully, alter grades, or otherwise make a kids life hell. They have enough of that from the other kids about stupid crap like what brand of sneakers they are wearing.

    Side note tangent:

    Sadly, I do have to agree with the statement that this country is not about liberty and justice for all. It's about who has the thickest and widest opened wallet. They rest of us are told to go suck an egg if we don't like it. It is not money that is the root of all evil. It is the men and women behind it and their actions that are dark.

  1. Mark Hannon's Avatar Mark Hannon

    I have left the fundamentalist Christian church that I was raised in and don't hold to their beliefs on nearly anything, I am reminded that we were told to not stand or repeat the Pledge of Allegiance. They used the KJV verse Matthew 6:24 as their justification.

    "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

    It always amazes me when I think how much has changed with Evangelicals in the past 40 years. I really think TV preachers took everything to different extremes.

  1. Robert James Ruhnke's Avatar Robert James Ruhnke

    Leave it to the modern day Texas Taliban to try and force people to do things their so called christly way. The only freedoms they want are the freedom to force people to act according to their way of thinking. Everything the Soviet Union was ever guilty of, the Texas Right are just as guilty of. They think themselves different only because of the flag they wave, and the crosses they carry.

  1. Wayne Chattillon's Avatar Wayne Chattillon

    don`t take me wrongly but i believe The Pledge of Allegiance should only be to a nation(country)sate Not to a material thing such as the flag here in Australia we don't pledge allegiance to a flag

  1. Joel Clyde Brothers's Avatar Joel Clyde Brothers

    I will agree that the, "under God" part may be problamatic for some, and it wasn't part of the original pledge. I would'nt have a problem with them removing it. But the student could have stood, said the Pledge, and just left a space where ,"under God" goes. Refusing to stand is another issue entirely. It is a direct insult to those of us whom have fought, and the ones that gave thier lives for that Pledge. That person lives in this country and obviously has no problem with enjoying all of the benefits that entails.

    And how did she get $90,000 worth of damgae just because of a little harrasment for a stupid act? Actions and words have consequences. She got off light. Instyead, she should have been ordered to volunteer at a Veteran's Hospital for a few weeks, and see what being and American really means.

    You certainly have the right to protest properly, but others also have that right, and it does not entitle you to special treatment just because you made a dumb decision. Maybe the school shouldn't have been so hard on her, but it was to teach her a lesson. When you pull the dragon's tail, be prepared for the fire.

    1. William Dusenberry's Avatar William Dusenberry

      As a Pantheist (Nature and God are the same thing) I can say “under God” and be reciting an “almost” factual statement.

      But if being “under” God (aka, nature) excludes me from being part of nature (aka, God) then I’m not so certain.

      Pantheists have the only provable God — but only if they are Secular Pantheists — Pantheists who allege that a supernatural God created nature, are also known as Deists —and in that regard, they are ineligible to become SHP’ers (Secular Humanist Pantheists).

  1. Nicholas J Page's Avatar Nicholas J Page

    I'm An Englishman and I don't understand your pledge of Allegiance. What I do consider this is bullying why in this day and age should citizens have to pledge to anything. And having her personal property taken away should never have happened The pledge sounds to me that it is out of date and should not be forced onto anyone. When I was at school we never had like a pledge to our Queen forced onto us.We only said prayers and learnt the National Anthem. So if she wins her case I hope you can hold onto your dollars.

  1. Pedro Pagan Jr's Avatar Pedro Pagan Jr

    This is a Nation Of Laws and one of those laws is freedom for all under the law. This is a personal responsibility to that individual to decide, not a religious responsibility. For Me I point to ROMANS 13.

  1. Robert J. McGowan's Avatar Robert J. McGowan

    I do understand. I believe that black lives matter.

    But how do you sue and claim that your civil rights are being violated. You're using the rights and privileges created under the flag you're protesting against. sounds like an oxymoron to me

  1. Tom Zakem's Avatar Tom Zakem

    I remember back in first grade back in the late 50s that the two students are allowed not to stand or say the pledge of allegiance because of religious reasons and as far as I can remember at least I was ok with that but the school did not punish them for it

  1. Rev. Rory's Avatar Rev. Rory

    EPR, Thank you for your service to this country and your correct understanding that you made a pledge to uphold the constitution.

    1. If the only part someone objects to is "under God", by all means, don't say that line. It's an added line that has more to do with the politics of the time it was added than it has to do with religion.
    2. If you don't want to say the pledge, it should be fine to stand, in respect of the teacher, and not recite it.
    3. If students are making fun of one child, that becomes a learning opportunity. The teacher tells the students to calm down so there can be a discussion about the constitution and about treating people with respect, whatever their beliefs. The teacher should explain why we are a free country - we have free speech. (don't yell fire in a crowded place.)
    4. Texas and Florida have a habit of punishing people based on political ideas and religion/race/gender/sexual orientation/place of birth/ and poor information that comes from "news" commentators.
    5. Fellow Americans are not and should not be your enemy.

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