A Texas woman who alleges that public school officials failed to prevent harassment against her teenage daughter for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance can proceed with her free speech and free-exercise-of-religion claims, a federal district court has ruled.
LaShan Arceneaux, the mother of 17-year-old student known in court papers as M.O., sued the Klein Independent School District, contending that school officials harassed and disciplined M.O. for her constitutional right to sit during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. She also alleged that school officials failed to stop bullying of M.O. by other students.
The Klein Pledge Policy provides:
A board shall require students, once during each school day, to recite the pledges of allegiance to the United States and Texas flags. On written request from a student’s parent or guardian, a district shall excuse the student from reciting a pledge of allegiance.
Arceneaux alleges a pattern of harassment against her daughter for sitting during the Pledge. Some of the alleged incidents include: a geography teacher writing up M.O. for sitting the Pledge; a journalism teacher singled out M.O. for discipline for sitting during the Pledge; another student called M.O. a “bitch” for sitting during the Pledge; a school principal accused M.O. of “acting like a criminal.”
Because of these and other related incidents, Arceneaux removed her daughter from school and began homeschooling her.
The school district filed a motion to dismiss Arceneaux’s lawsuit. On May 22, 2018, U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal allowed some of the claims to proceed in his opinion in Arceneaux v. Klein Indep. Sch. Dist.
For example, Judge Rosenthal did not dismiss the free-speech claim. He noted that Arceneaux had contended that school officials engaged in a pattern or custom of disciplining and harassing M.O. for failing to stand for the Pledge. This would violate the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette (1943). In that famous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that public school students had a First Amendment right to refuse to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. As a result of the Barnette decision, public schools have to allow students to opt out of Pledge requirements.
The judge also allowed Arceneaux’s claim to proceed under the Free Exercise Clause, which generally prohibits the government from punishing a person for exercising their religious beliefs or non-beliefs.
However, the judge dismissed Arceneaux’s claims under the Establishment Clause, which provides for separation between church and state. The judge reasoned that the Pledge was primarily a patriotic exercise, not a religious one.
The case was only at the motion to dismiss stage. Whether the plaintiff will prevail is still up in the air. However, if the allegations can be proven, the school district may have some explaining to do. No student should be harassed or bullied because they do not stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.