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Texas teacher settles lawsuit with student he forced to write out Pledge of Allegiance

Former high school student Mari Oliver, who is Black, had “exercised her constitutional right to decline to participate in the Pledge."

A Texas high school teacher who was sued after he forced a student to write out the Pledge of Allegiance after she refused to say it has settled with the student for $90,000, according to a civil rights organization.

American Atheists, which represented the student, Mari Oliver, said in a statement Tuesday that Benjie Arnold, a 12th grade sociology teacher at Klein Oak High School in Harris County, about 30 miles north of Houston, agreed to the settlement.

"The Texas Association of School Boards, a risk pool funded by Texas school districts, has paid $90,000 to resolve the case before trial," the statement said.

Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas.
Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas.Google Maps

Oliver sued Arnold and the school in 2017, according to court documents. She said she was "harassed, disciplined, and retaliated against for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance," according to American Atheists.

Oliver, who is Black, had "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."

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 decided that students may not be required to salute the American flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance if it is against their religious belief. Texas law also stipulates that if a student has a written request to sit out the pledge, from a parent or guardian, a public or charter school must honor that.

Oliver's mom had made the request but she still faced harassment over her decision not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, according to the suit. Her mom pulled her out of school to homeschool her for a time.

"When she returned, the discrimination she faced for sitting out the Pledge resumed and intensified," according to American Atheists. Teachers were informed of Oliver’s decision, but Arnold continued to retaliate against her for not reciting the Pledge, the suit said.

He required that Oliver and her classmates write out the Pledge of Allegiance, and when Oliver refused, he told her: “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," the American Atheists statement said.

Arnold was then caught on a recording offering to pay for students to move to Europe, but telling them they would have to pay him back double if they wanted to return to the U.S.

Arnold's attorneys did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for Klein Independent School District said the district did not enter into a settlement and was awarded summary judgment. The representative did not offer further comment or respond to a question about whether Arnold still worked there.

Oliver's representation said the settlement was a victory for free speech, while also expressing surprise that the case dragged out for so long.

“The classroom is not a pulpit. It is a place of education, not indoctrination,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, with American Atheists, who handled the case and settlement negotiations. “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 Randall Kallinen, another attorney who worked on the case. “School staff need to teach the Constitution, not violate it.”