A nonreligious high school student in Texas who sued after her teacher forced her to write out the Pledge of Allegiance has been awarded a $90,000 settlement to resolve the case, according to the anti-religious organization American Atheists.
In a press release Tuesday, American Atheists, which represented the student, Mari Oliver, announced that her 12th-grade sociology teacher, Benjie Arnold, agreed to settle the case and that the Texas Association of School Boards, a risk pool funded by Texas school districts, issued the payment.
Oliver, who is black, had reportedly been singled out and harassed for years over her refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance “out of her objection to the words, ‘Under God,’ and her belief that the United States does not adequately guarantee ‘liberty and justice for all,’ especially for people of color,” the organization claimed.
Under Texas law, students are required to recite the pledge. However, they can be granted an exemption if a written request is submitted from a parent or guardian, as was the case for Oliver.
In her lawsuit, filed in 2017, she claimed the harassment eventually resulted in her being withdrawn from school in favor of temporary homeschooling. But later, upon her return, the alleged discrimination only intensified.
The situation reportedly reached a head in Arnold’s sociology class at Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas. After the school’s principal informed staff that Oliver was exempted from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Arnold gave an assignment to his students requiring them to transcribe the words of the pledge. When Oliver refused, Arnold gave her a zero for the assignment.
According to an audio recording of the class, Arnold then went on a lengthy diatribe about patriotism and other topics. At one point, he offered to pay for students to move to Europe if they didn’t like America but said they would have to pay him back double if they elected to return.
“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. Those are the ways we do it in America,” he reportedly said.
In a statement following the settlement, Geoffrey T. Blackwell, litigation counsel at American Atheists, 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.”
Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, added, “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 [that] 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.”
The Houston Chronicle reported that Arnold remains a teacher at Klein Oak High School. He celebrated 50 years with the district in 2020.
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