Atheist Group Condemns NY High School for Not Allowing Student to Sit During Pledge of Allegiance

A humanist group recently accused a New York high school of violating the U.S. Constitution after it allegedly prohibited one of its students from opting out of saying the Pledge of Allegiance due to its reference to God.

In a letter to the Elmira City School District this week, the American Humanist Association argued that a teacher at Southside High School violated the constitutional rights of a student when she forbade the student from sitting down while the Pledge of Allegiance was recited in class. Additionally, the teacher reportedly told the student that not reciting the Pedge of Allegiance "is disrespectful to America and to military personnel."

The letter from the American Humanist Association suggests teachers at Southside High School be instructed not to persuade a student to recite the Pledge of Allegiance if they do not wish to do so. The letter also requests that students not be punished for opting out of the Pledge. The humanist association cites the Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, that granted students the right to opt out of the Pledge. 

"The sophomore here does not deserve to have her patriotism questioned merely because she chooses to exercise her constitutional rights. Indeed, instead of rote recitation, she has given thoughtful consideration of the underlying religious and political issues raised by the exercise, and this should, if anything, earn her the respect of her teachers," the letter to the school district read. 

Hillary Austin, superintendent for the Elmira City School District, said in an email to the Press & Sun-Bulletin that the first time she heard of the student's complaint was when she received the letter from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the association.

"The first I have heard of any allegation such as this was in the letter sent to the district from The Appignani Humanist Legal Center, indicating that a female sophomore had reported such a claim."

Austin added in a statement released to the media that students at the high school are in fact allowed to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance, if they wish to do so. "As a general matter, the District is very well aware of each student's right under United States Supreme Court and Second Circuit Court of Appeals precedent to decline participation in the Pledge."

"The District also welcomes community dialogue on freedom of speech, civic engagement, and the right to be free from political compulsion."

The superintendent also supplied to the Press & Sun-Bulletin an email she had sent to faculty members regarding the constitutional rights of students and the Pledge of Allegiance. Among multiple bullet points, Austin indicated that students who do not wish to recite the Pledge may sit quietly in the classroom.

The superintendent added to the local newspaper that the district does not plan to respond to the humanist association's letter directly.