Court Battles

Texas high school student pressured to write Pledge of Allegiance awarded $90K

A Texas teacher who in 2017 forced a student to write out the Pledge of Allegiance after she refused to recite the words has settled a lawsuit filed against him for $90,000, according to a civil rights organization representing the student.

American Atheists, which is representing the student, Mari Oliver, said high school sociology teacher Benjie Arnold agreed to pay out via a risk funding pool managed by the Texas Association of School Boards.

Nick Fish, the organization’s president, applauded the settlement after close to five years of litigation. Fish said nonreligious students like Oliver “often face bullying or harassment for expressing their deeply held convictions.”

“No one should have to endure the years of harassment, disrespect, and bullying our client faced,” Fish said in a Tuesday statement. “The fact that this happened in a public school and at the hands of staff who should know better is particularly appalling.”

A spokesperson for TASB said in a statement that it was not directly involved with the settlement agreement, but the TASB risk management fund had worked with Arnold on the case and on the settlement.

“After discussion with counsel and Mr. Arnold, it was decided that in the interest of limiting continued expensive litigation, a settlement agreement should be reached in the one ongoing case against Mr. Arnold,” the spokesperson confirmed.

Texas state law requires the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited every day but provides exemptions for students who choose to opt out.

Oliver, who is Black, was enrolled at Klein Oak High School, about 30 minutes outside of Houston, in 2017. She chose not to recite the pledge because it did not match her religious beliefs and because African Americans still experience injustice.

Arnold and other teachers held a meeting in August 2017 and were instructed that Oliver would not recite the pledge. But in September, Arnold gave the class an assignment to write out the Pledge of Allegiance and said anyone who failed to do so would get a zero on the assignment.

Oliver wrote a squiggly line through the paper and failed the assignment.

According to American Atheists, Arnold went on a tirade about foreigners who do not assimilate into American culture and the country’s lack of patriotism.

The teacher also allegedly told Oliver, “What you’ve done is leave me no option but to give you a zero, and you can have all the beliefs and resentment and animosity that you want.”

Oliver sued in 2017 on First Amendment grounds. A district court ruled against Arnold’s request for qualified immunity in 2020, citing the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court precedent West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which forbids the compelling of saluting the flag or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Arnold filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 5th Circuit, but the court denied the appeal for qualified immunity last June.

“The required pledge was a written oath rather than an oral one and that the consequence for noncompliance was an academic penalty rather than an overt disciplinary action,” the court ruled. “Barnette clearly states that teachers and other school officials may not require students to swear allegiance, and with the case in this posture, we must assume that this is what Arnold did.”

Updated at 4:45 p.m. 

Tags American Atheists Benjie Arnold Houston Klein lawsuit Mari Oliver Texas Texas Association of School Boards

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