In Houston, Texas, a former high school student has settled a lawsuit against a teacher regarding a dispute over the Pledge of Allegiance.
The $90,000 settlement, which the Texas Association of School Boards paid, was reached with the now-former student, Mari Oliver, who had sued Klein Oak High School teacher Benjie Arnold in 2017. American Atheists provided counsel for Oliver, who was described as non-religious.
The litigation stemmed from Oliver’s refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which led to Arnold trying to force the student to write the words.
Oliver claims that she was harassed and discriminated against for refusing to say the Pledge. Her refusal is based on the presence of the words “under God” in the mantra and her belief that its claim of “liberty for all” was not true for her and other minorities.
Texas law states that any student’s request not to recite the Pledge must be accompanied by a written note from a parent or guardian and honored by a public or charter school. Even though her mother had offered a written request, harassment against Oliver continued.
A 1943 case decided by the United States Supreme Court states that students are not obligated to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the American flag if it is against their religious beliefs.
According to American Atheists, Arnold retaliated against the student when she refused to write out the Pledge.
The teacher reportedly told Oliver that she had left him “no option but to give [her] a zero, and [she] can have all the beliefs and resentment and animosity that [she] wants.”
Additional evidence against Arnold came when he was captured on tape, stating that he would pay for students to move to Europe if they were dissatisfied with the United States.
Arnold then indicated that any student doing so would be required to repay double if they sought to return.
In the wake of the settlement, American Atheists legal counsel Geoffrey T. Blackwell noted the expected role of educators.
“The classroom is not a pulpit,” Blackwell said. “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.”
Randall Kallinen, a Houston civil rights attorney who worked on the case with Blackwell, frowned upon the school district’s efforts to fight a case involving First Amendment rights.
“It is incredible — the time and money spent by the Klein Independent School District to stop a student’s free speech,” Kallinen said. “School staff need to teach the Constitution, not violate it.”
Arnold has worked for the Klein Independent School District since 1970 and appears to still work at the high school, as he is in the staff directory.