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FAYETTEVILLE -- The city's school superintendent said the district will educate its staff members about students' right to abstain from the Pledge of Allegiance after a Washington organization contacted the district about a teacher who punished a student for remaining seated during the pledge.

The American Humanist Association complained in a Monday letter to Fayetteville Superintendent Paul Hewitt a teacher at Owl Creek School admonished a student who remained seated during the pledge with a "disciplinary write-up," in violation of the student's constitutional right.

"The student and her family report that she was wrongfully lectured by her teacher and punished for exercising her constitutional right to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance," states the letter from Monica Miller, an attorney for the association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

Students have the right to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance, a decision supported by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the letter states.

The situation happened because of a misunderstanding by a staff member, Hewitt said in an email.

"As a district, we are aware of the court rulings that allow students to either stand or sit during the Pledge of Allegiance," Hewitt said. "We will make certain all staff members understand and allow students their individual rights."

Students opting out of the Pledge of Allegiance hasn't been a problem in the past and shouldn't be an issue in the future, Hewitt said.

"We also appreciate the parent of the student involved for bringing it to our attention," Hewitt said.

District spokesman Alan Wilbourn said the situation wasn't a teacher disciplinary issue.

The American Humanist Association takes an active role in pointing out situations when governmental activities discriminate against atheists and humanists, said David Niose, legal director for the association. For nonbelievers, saying "one nation under God" is a false statement, he said.

"There are many atheists and humanists who feel the Pledge of Allegiance as its currently written discriminates against them and discriminates against an entire religious class," Niose said. "We get contacted regularly about this with kids who are harassed by teachers or administrators for not participating in the pledge, even though Supreme Court case law from the 1940s makes it absolutely clear that children have the right to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance."

Niose said he hoped the district would acknowledge the mistake and take steps to ensure it wouldn't happen again.

The association in September began a national campaign to encourage people to sit out of the Pledge of Allegiance until the phrase "under God" is removed, according to the association's website. The association has been defending students punished for sitting out of the Pledge.

The conflict at Owl Creek began Feb. 2 when a seventh-grader decided to remain seated and to not say the pledge because of religious and personal reasons, Miller wrote. Her teacher pulled the student aside after class and told her she must stand during the exercise, the letter states.

The student and family aren't identified in the letter.

The student attempted to talk to her teacher about her constitutional right to choose not to participate, but the teacher responded her position was an act of defiance, Miller wrote. When the student sat out of the Pledge of Allegiance on Feb. 4, the teacher ordered the student to leave the room, admonished her with a "disciplinary write-up" and said she would inform the child's parents, principal and vice principal.

The parents reported to the association the school's principal and vice principal insisted the school could force the child to stand during the pledge, Miller wrote.

NW News on 02/13/2015

Print Headline: Group defends Fayetteville student's right to opt out of pledge

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