School district concedes to American Atheists

 

On Oct. 23 signs were placed in each school of Santa Rosa County that read, “Students are invited to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our country, but they are not required to do so.” Santa Rosa County Director of Middle Schools David Gunter says the signs were in response to a complaint from a parent who alleged that her son was forced to stand during the pledge of allegiance even though he expressed his unwillingness to do so.  The school stood firm referring to F.S. 1003.44 and the Code of Student Conduct and referenced a section that states “When the pledge is given, civilians must show full respect to the flag by standing at attention”.

Without a response to their satisfaction, the parents reached out to American Atheists, an organization that according to their website, “fights for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”

In a Sept. 8 letter obtained by Navarre Press, American Atheists demanded action from Santa Rosa School Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick.  The correspondence further alleged that in addition to being made to stand during the pledge, the student also faced public humiliation.  The letter states that the teacher tried to coerce the student into changing his mind about not standing for recitation.  In the letter to the district, American Atheists includes several case law examples of court rulings on the matter, noting that the statute is unconstitutional.

American Atheists demanded that:  1. Notices be placed in each classroom where the pledge is being recited that inform students of their rights not to participate – by saying or standing – in the pledge, and in classrooms where students cannot read or need special accommodation, oral or other means of communication be used to tell students of their constitutional rights not to participate; 2. That staff be instructed that under no circumstances should they attempt to persuade students to refrain from exercising the right to nonparticipation, question students about their nonparticipation, or characterize opting out as misconduct or wrong; and 3. That no disciplinary action or other retaliatory measures of any kind be taken toward, any student for nonparticipation in pledge rituals.

In a response by attorney Paul R. Green, P.A. written on behalf of the school district, Green agrees with the status of the statute stating, “I do not believe we have a significant different view on the status of the law in the this matter.  In addition to what you cited, I would note that in 2006 in a case heard by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the court held that requiring parents to consent, as required by the language of F.S. 1003.44, was also unconstitutional.  So, apparently we have a Florida Statute which has been found to be unconstitutional in significant parts.”

The courts have consistently ruled in favor of a student’s right to opt out of the pledge of allegiance.  In 1943 in West Virginia State Bd. Of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the right of students to opt out of saying the pledge of allegiance.  Throughout the years, other cases have shed light on a student’s constitutional right to remain seated during the recitation and the assurance that public school officials are prohibited from compelling students to stand during the pledge.

While the parties agree on the law, the school district does not agree with the allegations that the student was humiliated, kidded or ridiculed.  The family of the student is willing to “let it rest” as long as the student is not questioned again about his choice to sit during the pledge of allegiance.

The parties also agreed on providing notice in the form of a sign placed in every classroom and the language it would contain.  “The sign is in compliance with the statute that requires us to post in a conspicuous place, which apparently is the only part of the statute that is still valid,” said Gunter. “The current posting in our Code of Student Conduct is out of compliance and we will be changing it and bringing it up to date.  We have a lot of parents that are confused or upset because they are referring to the statute.  And when you read it, it says what our Code of Conduct says.  But those have been ruled unconstitutional and we have to change our code.”

The Florida Statute referenced that governs public schools K-12, Patriotic Programs; rules is Chapter 1003.44 which states:

(1) Each district school board may adopt rules to require, in all of the schools of the district, programs of a patriotic nature to encourage greater respect for the government of the United States and its national anthem and flag, subject always to other existing pertinent laws of the United States or of the state. When the national anthem is played, students and all civilians shall stand at attention, men removing the headdress, except when such headdress is worn for religious purposes. The pledge of allegiance to the flag, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” shall be rendered by students standing with the right hand over the heart. The pledge of allegiance to the flag shall be recited at the beginning of the day in each public elementary, middle, and high school in the state. Each student shall be informed by posting a notice in a conspicuous place that the student has the right not to participate in reciting the pledge. Upon written request by his or her parent, the student must be excused from reciting the pledge. When the pledge is given, civilians must show full respect to the flag by standing at attention, men removing the headdress, except when such headdress is worn for religious purposes, as provided by Pub. L. ch. 77-435, s. 7, approved June 22, 1942, 56 Stat. 377, as amended by Pub. L. ch. 77-806, 56 Stat. 1074, approved December 22, 1942.

 

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