Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during morning announcements is just part of the school-day routine for many students. Yet, for other students, the choice to remain seated and silent during the Pledge is an important exercise of their rights to freedom of speech and religion. Jeff Mason, a fifth grade teacher at Highland Elementary School in Reedsport, Oregon, battled for his students’ right to remain respectfully seated during the Pledge for twelve long years before he called the ACLU of Oregon. Although federal law, Oregon law, and Reedsport School District policy all prohibit compelling public school students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, faculty and staff members at Highland Elementary School routinely forced their students to stand during the daily recitation of the Pledge, singling out students for public embarrassment if they attempted to invoke their right to remain seated.During Jeff’s attempt to safeguard the rights of Highland Elementary School students, he faced significant intimidation and hostility from school administration and staff. At one point, Jeff’s former principal even ordered him to force his own students to stand for the Pledge, but Jeff knew that to do so would be against the law and reached out to his union for help. After enduring years of meetings and letters that never resulted in the school’s full compliance with the law, Jeff turned to the ACLU.
On December 15, 2011, the ACLU of Oregon sent a letter to the superintendent of Reedsport School District, informing him of the problems at Highland Elementary School and reminding him that coercing students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Since 1943, the law has been clear that public school students cannot be forced to recite or otherwise participate in the Pledge of Allegiance against their will. In the case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court found that the right to remain silent during the Pledge of Allegiance stems from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Just as the First Amendment protects our right to express our beliefs, it prohibits the government from compelling us to declare a belief that we do not hold. As the Barnette court wrote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Oregon law also explicitly recognizes the right to not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Shortly after receiving the ACLU’s letter, Highland Elementary School made dramatic changes to ensure the constitutional rights of its students. On January 3rd, the introduction to the Pledge was revised to inform students that they “have the option to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or remain silently seated.” The principal also reviewed the school policy at a January 4th staff meeting, explaining to the staff that they must comply with the law by permitting students to remain seated during the Pledge.
As Jeff wrote in a letter to the ACLU, “Now, the Bill of Rights may be something more than a topic we briefly study in our Social Studies curriculum. It will now be a part of every child’s life. It will be a part of every day's introduction to the Pledge of Allegiance. Every adult staff member and every child will be reminded every day, before we salute the flag, that we all have the option to participate in the Pledge, or not. And that no coercion, intimidation, or ridicule of any kind, will fall on those that elect not to participate in the Pledge. That's following our Constitution and participating in our democracy; that's learning about our Bill of Rights.”