The American Humanist Association’s boycott of the Pledge of Allegiance has revealed some very troubling information: extensive reports showing that students who opt out of the Pledge exercise are often subjected to harsh mistreatment from their teachers and school administrators.
The AHA launched the boycott in September, advertising it widely on social media, to educate the public about how the “under God” wording was added to the official recitation in the 1950s in response to lobbying by religious groups, and how the wording marginalizes atheists and humanists by casting them as less patriotic and portraying believers as the real patriots. And since the law gives public school students a clear right to opt out of the Pledge exercise (the Supreme Court ruled on that issue back in 1943), the boycott is seen as a great way to inform kids and engage them in peaceful protest on a contemporary social and political issue. (Full disclosure: I'm AHA's legal director.)
But as it turns out, even though the Supreme Court says the Pledge should be voluntary, in real life it's not so clear that the exercise is optional. As the AHA gathers information from the Pledge boycott, numerous students from all over the country are reporting that teachers and administrators are reacting with hostility when the right to sit out is exercised. If the Pledge is voluntary, it seems that even many teachers are unaware, or simply don't care. The sad truth is that kids who sit out often pay a huge price for doing so: public scolding, humiliation, accusations of being selfish or unpatriotic, and even outright punishment.
Here's small sampling of what kids are reporting to the AHA:
From Pennsylvania: “My teacher yelled at me in front of everyone. ‘What are you doing? Stand up! Say the Pledge! Have some respect!’ This happened every day for a week. Finally he gave up and left me alone. I didn’t give up, because it’s extremely unfair to pledge allegiance to my country under the name of a god I don’t believe in.”
California: “I refused to say the pledge, was immediately sent to principal’s office and threatened with expulsion.”
Texas: “I attend the library for this class. One day when it came time for the pledge of allegiance, the librarian yelled across the library for me to stand up. . . [The next week] I got escorted to by the security guard that the counselor wants to see me. . . [The counselor asked] why I wasn’t standing up for the pledge. . .”
Arizona: “Every day since I started school I have been singled out for not standing or saying the Pledge. Telling me I’m a’unappreciative’ and I should ‘travel abroad’ so I will appreciate what rights I have in this country. . . I was also told I must stand or leave the classroom because I might offend others when remaining seated for the Pledge. I was asked if I was ‘mentally okay’ by my history teacher because I would not stand up for the Pledge. . . He told me he doesn’t want to hear about [my constitutional rights.] I have had private discussions with him pulling me out of class . . .and he also enjoys admonishing me in front of my fellow students.”
Mississippi: “When the pledge was over, my teacher told me I was being disrespectful. When I tried to explain why, she ignored me and told me that from now on, I would have to stand outside during the pledge. . .”
California: “My teacher called me out, yelling that my action was very disrespectful and threatened to kick me out of class if I did it again.”
Alaska: “Two of my teachers got offended that I wouldn't stand and contacted my parents. I still didn’t and finally got my parents on my side and now they don’t bother me.”
New Jersey: “My drama teacher . . . keeps shouting at students to stand for the Pledge. . . [S]he barks at students to stand. . . .”
New Mexico: “My morning class would make me stand outside of the class when they recited the pledge. No matter the weather conditions my teacher forced me outside the class.”
Illinois: “Teacher has me stand in the hall for the pledge. My being in the room is ‘disrespectful’ to the students that say the pledge. Principal says it’s my fault I’m out thre because I decided to be different.”
Oklahoma: “[Teacher} proceeded to berate my child and tell him he needed to stand for the pledge and that he was disrespecting people in her family that were military. . . What the teacher didn’t know is that my son’s father is active duty military with 19 years of serve and I myself am a veteran with 10 years of service.”
Washington: “My homeroom teacher would yell ‘stand up!’ If I refused, he would then single me out in front of the entire class and rant about how selfish and unpatriotic my actions were.”
This is just a small sampling of the numerous reports the AHA has received.
This right to opt out of the Pledge is even more important than it may seem at first glance, because it has become a focal point in legal disputes over the "under God" wording. When lawsuits have been brought to challenge the constitutionality of “under God,” defenders of the wording consistently use the “voluntariness” defense to argue that there is nothing discriminatory about the exercise. If you don’t like the official reference to God-belief, they argue, then you can simply sit it out. This solution is hardly adequate for many atheists, who feel that the better remedy would be an exercise that doesn’t affirmatively disfavor them, but some courts have found the “voluntariness” argument persuasive.
If we are honest with ourselves (and our kids) we’d admit that opting out of the Pledge exercise too often comes with a price that children should not have to pay. That's hardly "voluntary."
David Niose’s new book, Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, is coming in December from Palgrave Macmillan.
[Note: Some of the reports quoted above received very light editing to correct spelling and other typos.]