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American Atheists Wins Settlement for Harassed Nonreligious Student

Houston, TX—Today, the civil rights organization American Atheists announced a successful settlement on behalf of a nonreligious student who was harassed, disciplined, and retaliated against for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance.

The defendant, the student’s 12th grade sociology teacher, agreed to settle the case. As a result of that agreement, the Texas Association of School Boards, a risk pool funded by Texas school districts, has paid $90,000 to resolve the case before trial.

“Nonreligious students often face bullying or harassment for expressing their deeply held convictions,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “No one should have to endure the years of harassment, disrespect, and bullying 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. After nearly five years of litigation, the defendant finally made the only smart decision and agreed to settle this case.”

Throughout her time in high school, the student exercised her constitutional right to decline to participate in the Pledge 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. According to American Atheists’ lawsuit, the student was subjected to discrimination and harassment in the classroom for acting in accordance with her views. The situation contributed to her mother’s decision to withdraw her from school in favor of temporary homeschooling. When she returned, the discrimination she faced for sitting out the Pledge resumed and intensified.

Teacher Benjie Arnold allegedly singled her out and retaliated against her for sitting out the Pledge. Although she was exempt from the Pledge under state law and teachers had been informed of this fact during a staff meeting, Arnold nonetheless required that she and her classmates write it. After she refused, Arnold told her and the rest of the class, “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.”

Based upon an audio recording of the incident, Arnold then went on an extended tirade, offering to pay for students to move to Europe if they didn’t like living in America—but they would have to pay him back double if they ever returned to the U.S. He then expressed his own limited view of free speech and insinuated that anything else is un-American, saying, “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 [sic]. Those are the ways we do it in America.”

“The classroom is not a pulpit. It is a place of education, not indoctrination,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel at American Atheists, who handled the case and settlement negotiations in partnership with Texas civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen. “This settlement serves as a reminder that students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the classroom.”

“It is incredible—the time and money spent by the Klein Independent School District to stop a student’s free speech,” said Kallinen. “School staff need to teach the Constitution, not violate it.”