Teacher Who Harassed Non-religious Student Loses Court Appeal

By Abdulla Gaafarelkhalifa

On December 16, 2021, American Atheists announced their success in a lawsuit on behalf of Mari Leigh Oliver, a nonreligious high school student in Houston, Texas. The student not only objected to reciting “under God”, but did not feel that “liberty and justice to all” applied to all citizens, particularly those of color. The lawsuit was filed against her teacher, Benjie Arnold, who retaliated against her for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance.

In June, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to grant the Houston suburb teacher qualified immunity. Arnold then petitioned for a rehearing. On December 15, by a vote of 10-7, the Fifth Circuit of Appeals rejected Arnold’s request.

Geoffrey T. Blackwell, American Atheists’ Litigation Counsel, spoke on the rejection. “This is an important victory for nonreligious Americans’—and all Americans’—freedom of speech… The classroom is not a pulpit. It is a place of education, not indoctrination. No student should be punished for exercising her First Amendment rights.”

Oliver’s civil rights lawyer, Randall Kallinen, who is serving as local counsel in the case, also spoke about the rejection. “Mr. Arnold should have been teaching students about American freedom, not American intolerance… A student’s right to peaceful freedom of expression does not end at the schoolhouse steps.”

The US pledge of allegiance has been a hot topic issue for nearly an entire century. It was originally followed as: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

It was changed twice within two decades. The first time, in 1942, for the sole purpose to specify which country the pledge is for. The second, and more controversial change, happened in 1954, during the Cold War, as a result of America’s antagonism of the forcefully secular nature of the Soviet Union, by adding “Under God.”

It currently reads: “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.”

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